Hurricane Matthew made a short, intense dash across the easternmost tip of Cuba Tuesday, toppling trees and power lines, washing out a bridge, sending waves crashing ashore and pelting communities with torrential rains.
High winds began whipping Cuba late Tuesday afternoon and just before 6 p.m. Matthew’s eye made landfall near Punta Caleta on the sparsely populated southeastern tip of Cuba. Highest sustained winds were near 140 mph.
Landfall was further east in Guantánamo province than originally forecast, putting more distance between densely populated areas and the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay than initially anticipated.
Another fortunate break was that the Category 4 hurricane came ashore on one of the narrowest strips of Cuban territory. Instead of churning across the island for 12 hours, the eye exited near Baracoa on the northern coast only about two hours after coming ashore. Trailing hurricane-force winds were expected to impact the island until about 2 a.m. Wednesday.
In picturesque Baracoa, which has about 40,000 residents, waves reaching 10 to 13 feet crashed ashore and water streamed down the streets. The high winds downed many trees and electric wires. Tony Matos Romero, the head of the municipal defense council, said in a telephone interview with Cuban national television that the city was pelted by “intense, constant rain.”
Cubadebate, an official Cuban website, reported that a bridge in Imías, between Guantánamo and Baracoa, had fallen.
José Rubiera, Cuba’s chief hurricane forecaster, said in updates on Cuban TV that tropical-storm-force winds could affect the island as far west as Camagüey and Ciego de Avila and storm surges were expected to batter Cuba’s north coast from the eastern provinces to the central part of the island. On the southern coast, east of Cabo Cruz, storm surges of 7 to 11 feet were expected.
“We’re very worried. It’s very sad and painful that a hurricane is arriving and could destroy the little that we have,” Yoandy Beltran Gamboa said in a phone call from Guantánamo before Matthew hit.
Some of the shelters were filled to capacity. “In the Elena Fuentes López school, there are people sleeping on the floor and they are not permitting any more evacuees to enter,” said Beltran, who lives in downtown Guantánamo.
Cuba has made extensive storm preparations in eastern provinces from Camagüey to Guantánamo. More than 300,000 people were evacuated in the provinces of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Granma and Las Tunas.
Cuban media reported that 1,300 tourists staying in Camagüey, Granma and Holguín were transferred to safer areas in the center of the island. Over the weekend, Cuba also began preparing trains loaded with earth movers and equipment for power restoration to move into hurricane-affected areas.
In advance of the storm, U.S. military cargo planes evacuated 700 family members from the Guantánamo base to a “safe haven” in Pensacola.
As part of the preparations, the local newspaper Venceremos reported that authorities had decided to take down antennas, which was affecting radio, telephone and cell phone transmissions in some areas of eastern Cuba.
More than 350 women in the late stages of their pregnancies were transferred to three hospitals in Santiago where they can receive medical attention during Matthew.
Santiago endured a hurricane as recently as Oct. 25, 2012 when Sandy swept ashore, killing 11 people and damaging 137,000 homes, and that devastating experience was very much on the minds of Cuban authorities as they made preparations for Matthew.
“We are safer here than at home. The important thing is to stay alive,” Inés María Fajardo told Sierra Maestra, the official daily of Santiago, as she played cards in a Santiago shelter.
But residents of the province of Guantánamo, where nearly half the homes are reported to be in poor condition, have not experienced a hurricane in many years. In 1963, Hurricane Flora made landfall about 30 miles east of Guantánamo Bay with winds of 125 mph.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro and cabinet members were in eastern Cuba to personally oversee hurricane fortifications and recovery efforts and Castro told residents of Santiago that recovery plans would begin immediately after Matthew had cleared Cuban territory.