A rare and powerful tornado tore through the eastern end of Havana during the night Sunday, leaving at least three dead, 172 people injured, and severe damage to homes and the power grid.
After touring the devastated neighborhood of Regla before dawn, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel reported on his Twitter account: “Damages are severe, up to the moment we lament the loss of three human lives and are caring for 172 injured.” He said work brigades were on the scene and the Council of Ministers had been convened to assess damages and plan recovery efforts.
Guanabacoa, another working class neighborhood that sits on the opposite side of Havana’s port from the capital city’s downtown, also suffered heavy damages as did the neighborhoods of Cerro and 10 de Octubre.
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But the entire city was affected by heavy rains and high winds as a cold front moved across Havana toward the east, spawning the tornado in its midst. The tornado struck around 8:30 p.m. Sunday and one of the first indications that authorities received was a report of an overturned bus.
Luis Antonio Torres Iríbar, president of the Havana Provincial Defense Council, said he had experienced many severe weather events in the eastern provinces during his career, but said he believed that this was the first severe tornado since 1940.
An intense tornado hit Bejucal in Mayabeque Province in 1940.
Officials from the Cuban Institute of Meteorology said they were still assessing the strength of the Sunday tornado, but said it appeared to be between a category F3 and F4.
An F4 tornado packs winds of 207 mph to 260 mph and can easily launch vehicles into the air and level even well-constructed homes.
While cold fronts often bring high winds and coastal flooding in Cuba during the winter months, a tornado is a very unusual meteorological event.
As the tornado bore down on Regla, Victoria de la Caridad Infante went to the doorway of her home. She told CubaDebate, a Cuban online news service, that she heard a “tremendous noise and began to see flashes.
“When I saw that, I immediately entered the house,” she said. “My husband thought it was thunder, but I told him no. I assure you it was a red ball. I thought it was the flare from the oil refinery, but I realized it was moving.”
In an interview with the Cuban media, Torres said that in some neighborhoods “the impact has been severe... it has profoundly affected institutions, homes in our territory, especially in the municipality of Regla.”
Much of the housing stock in Regla was already in deteriorated condition before the tornado and in some dwellings entire floors and walls collapsed.
The fierce storm crumbled homes, downed power lines, blew out windows, overturned cars and buses, tossed metal roofing crazily on to balconies and splintered large trees that came crashing down on homes and vehicles.
Pillars, balconies, and other building adornments came crashing into the streets, which were clogged with piles of rubble Monday. But Cubans were out and about, dodging downed power lines and incapacitated vehicles.
The entire Malecon seaside highway was closed to vehicular traffic Monday afternoon and other roads also were closed for safety reasons and to help recovery operations.
Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz said in a tweet that a survey of tourism facilities after the tornado revealed that all were operating and hadn’t been affected.
In the hardest hit areas, electrical, gas, water and telephone service had all been cut, said Torres. A water main that collapsed after the power outage also was affecting water supplies far from the scene of the tornado, which touched down in 10 de Octubre and exited in Guanabacoa.
The Associated Press reported the tornado sucked out windows in the seven-story Daughters of Galicia Hospital and the patients — new and expectant mothers — had to be evacuated.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi