With a hurricane watch in effect from Matanzas in central Cuba east to the province of Guantánamo, the island kicked up its preparations for Hurricane Irma on Wednesday.
Cuban forecasters were keeping a careful eye on the storm’s track. Although Irma’s future route remains uncertain, Cuban forecasters said models indicate it will pass along or near the northern coast of Cuba beginning Friday night. Tropical-storm-force winds could be felt earlier.
During a meeting with Cuba’s Civil Defense Council, forecasters said various models project the Category 5 storm — which has sustained winds of around 185 mph — to arrive in Cuban territory in northern Ciego de Ávila province by Friday and skirt the coast before heading northwest toward Florida.
Cuba, which is known for carrying out its hurricane preparedness plans with military precision, began preparing its communications systems, pruning trees, safeguarding crops and cleaning caves in rural areas where Cubans often seek shelter. Even though a watch had not yet been announced for Havana, long lines formed outside supermarkets in the capital to stock up on hurricane supplies.
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“Cuba has perfected the art of hurricane preparedness by mobilizing local neighborhood organizations and the military to evacuate not only residents in the path of ongoing storms but their pets and their most prized possessions,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.
Last year, for example, Hurricane Matthew hit the the easternmost tip of Cuba and western Haiti as a category 4 storm with very different results. “It took the lives of over 1,000 Haitians but just four Cubans, even though property damage in Cuba was half a billion dollars greater,” said LeoGrande.
Cuban authorities are taking Irma seriously.
Gen. Ramón Pardo Guerra, the head of Cuba’s National Civil Defense Council, said Irma is a much more powerful hurricane than Iván, which walloped the island in 2004 and prompted the evacuation of more than 2 million people, according to a report in Granma, the newspaper of Cuba’s Community Party.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said flooding also is a threat to eastern and central Cuba and forecast that Irma could dump 8 to 12 inches of rain on the island with up to 20 inches in isolated areas.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Cuba Wednesday, advising travelers to reconsider upcoming travel to Cuba because of Irma. The hurricane, said the warning, “may bring significant rainfall and wind that may result in life-threatening flooding, flash flooding, mudslides and storm surge.”
Heather Nauert, a State Department spokesperson, tweeted that the department also was recommending U.S. citizens depart Cuba as well as the Dominican Republican and Haiti before Irma approaches.
Although personnel at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay on the southeastern Cuban coast planned to “shelter in place,” the State Department said that it had authorized the voluntary departure from Cuba of U.S. citizens and their families.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi