Death toll from fierce Cuban tornado climbs as exiles organize to help

Tornado causes destruction in Havana

A severe tornado hit Havana, Cuba, on Jan. 27 and left three people dead and 172 injured.
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A severe tornado hit Havana, Cuba, on Jan. 27 and left three people dead and 172 injured.

The death toll has climbed to four for the strongest tornado to hit Cuba since 1940. Nearly 200 people suffered injuries.

During its 16-minute rampage through eastern Havana neighborhoods it carried vehicles aloft and slammed them into buildings, crumbled homes and blasted out windows.

The Regla, Guanabacoa, Cerro, San Miguel del Padrón, 10 de Octubre districts and parts of East Havana were especially hard hit as the tornado tore through on Sunday night, but high winds downed trees and caused damage in other parts of the capital too.

Although a tornado of such force is extremely rare in Cuba, the government responded to the F4 disaster much the same as it does for much more common hurricanes.

Work brigades were on the scene Monday morning clearing rubble, crushed cars, and fallen trees, and by Tuesday tents selling food at highly subsidized prices began to appear in the most hard-hit neighborhoods.

The original death toll increased by one to four late Monday, and 195 people were reported injured. During a meeting of the Havana Defense Council, Reinol Delfín García, Havana’s health director, said that 12 of the injured were in serious condition.

A woman receives assistance in the Regla neighborhood in the wake of a tornado that killed four people and injured 195 people. ADALBERTO ROQUE AFP/Getty Images

The nearly 200 patients evacuated from the Daughters of Galicia maternity hospital where the Sunday tornado blew out the windows were all in stable conditions in new locations, he said.

During the meeting, the toll on housing also was announced: 1,238 damaged homes, including 123 total losses, 625 that were partially destroyed, and 378 that lost their roofs or parts of them.

More than 1 million homes were left without power after the tornado passed, but that number has been reduced to less than 220,000, according to ACN, the Cuban news agency.

During an appearance on the Mesa Redonda television program, Celso Pazos Alberdi, managing director of Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology, said that preliminary analysis showed the tornado reached the F4 category, capable of carrying vehicles aloft and leveling homes.

Wind speeds reached more than 186 mph as the tornado traveled along a 7.1 mile path of destruction.

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People whose homes were damaged by a tornado carry their belongings to be taken by bus to a Havana shelter. Ramon Espinosa AP

In addition to organized government recovery efforts, other groups on the island also were trying to help the victims.

The Communications School at the University of Havana has organized a drive through Friday to collect provisions for tornado victims, and private businesses were helping too.

D’la abuela, a private restaurant in Playa that makes deliveries only, said it was offering food at cost for requests from the affected zone and for free to children.

In the past private groups from South Florida have been willing to organize drives for victims of natural disasters on the island, but such organized efforts from the U.S. have generally been rebuffed by the Cuban government.

Church-organized efforts have met with more success although they too sometimes have met with difficulties.

The Archdiocese of Miami, which has sent relief in the past, has begun collecting money to help the tornado victims.

“What we are asking for are monetary donations because we don’t have the capacity to send food or clothing,” said Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswomen for the archdiocese. “We are working through Cáritas [a Catholic charitable organization] in Cuba; we are sending them money so they can buy what they need.”

A Cuban firefighter holds a baby wrapped in a blanket during evacuations in the tornado-hit Luyano neighborhood in Havana early on January 28, 2019. YAMIL LAGE AFP/Getty Images

The Cuban American National Foundation planned to unveil a four-point aid plan Wednesday whose centerpiece is monetary donations. It wants the Cuban government to open a “humanitarian channel” that would allow independent civil society organizations and private businesses to distribute such relief on-site in Cuba.

“The Cuban American National Foundation believes that it is imperative, at times like this, to open a humanitarian channel to alleviate the difficult situation of our brothers and sisters on the island. Until now, the response of the regime has been deficient, in some cases non-existent,” the Foundation said in a statement.

On social networks many people are asking the Cuban government to permit the entrance of aid and to suspend Customs regulations limiting imported food and other items that tornado victims need.

One such petition to the Cuban government on had collected nearly 6,600 signatures by Tuesday evening.

We Cubans are limited by absurd tariff barriers and limitations of all kinds in receiving aid from abroad,” it said. “It is time [for the Cuban government] to ease its prohibitions on donations for natural disasters that continually happen.”

El Nuevo Herald Staff Writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.