Hurricane Irma sets record for coastal flooding in Cuba. Now there is a water shortage

Hurricane Irma's impact on Havana

A heavy storm surge from Hurricane Irma prompted Cuban authorities to evacuate some low lying neighbourhoods along Havana's seaside town of Malecon on Saturday, while wind and rain pummeled the capital. Police called on residents to evacuate sever
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A heavy storm surge from Hurricane Irma prompted Cuban authorities to evacuate some low lying neighbourhoods along Havana's seaside town of Malecon on Saturday, while wind and rain pummeled the capital. Police called on residents to evacuate sever

In coastal towns and cities from Baracoa in the east to west of Havana, residents picked through collapsed and damaged homes Tuesday trying to salvage what they could. Furniture, appliances and other household items were stacked outside to dry out. And at houses that had been flooded, Cubans shoveled mounds of mud that filled the air with the stench of raw sewage.

“I have lived in this place since I was born, and I have never seen anything like this,” Óscar Rodríguez told 14ymedio as he paused from shoveling mud from every crevice of his home on Gervasio Street near the Malecón. “We have had floods, but [the water] has not passed the door sill. We lost two mattresses, the refrigerator got quite wet, and the television in the living room fell in the water when we tried to put it higher.”

As Cubans tried to dry out from the effects of Hurricane Irma, the government said restoring the electric grid, dealing with water shortages and resuming the school year were its main priorities. Meanwhile residents continued the overwhelming task of mopping up after the massive storm, which left 10 dead in Cuba in the 72 hours it rolled across the island’s northern coast.

Not only were wide swaths of the country left in the dark without electrical power, but Cuba was experiencing shortages of water for drinking, cooking and bathing in Havana and the central and western provinces.

The lack of water also is raising concerns about health issues, and UNICEF said it is sending 3 million chlorine tablets to Cuba.

Hurricane Irma was one for the record books in Cuba.

Granma, the newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, reported that Irma-driven coastal flooding was perhaps the most severe that Cuba has ever experienced. The flooding reached nearly five feet in some areas, including neighborhoods bordering Havana’s seaside Malecón.

Cuba Hurricane Irma (4)
Belongings of people affected by Hurricane Irma dry in the street in Isabela de Sagua, Cuba. Ramon Espinosa AP

Low-lying areas of Central Havana often flood during heavy rains or winter storms, but residents said they had never seen anything like the high water that Irma pushed ashore. Many people were trapped in their homes, and some on lower levels who hadn’t evacuated had to be rescued as the water continued to rise.

Cuban meteorologist José Rubiera said Irma also set another record: remaining a Category 5 hurricane for nearly 72 straight hours. Last Sunday, Irma’s powerful winds could be felt from Artemisa province in western Cuba to Sancti Spíritus in the central part of the island. Cuban meteorologists said such an extensive area of Cuba hadn’t been affected by a hurricane since the hurricane of Oct. 18, 1944.

Power outages, broken pipes and other infrastructure damages from Irma were blamed for water cutoffs to homes, but Cubans with cisterns and wells also said their water stocks were contaminated with flood waters.

As the electrical grid is restored, it should improve water availability to homes, Cuban authorities said. Tank trucks are visiting affected neighborhoods to alleviate the water shortages.

Cuba Hurrican Irma (2)
A girl walks beside a man trying to collect water from a pipe next to the remains of a house destroyed by Hurricane Irma in Isabela de Sagua, Cuba on Monday. Ramon Espinosa AP

Cuban state media reported that there had been severe damage to electrical plants, which are concentrated along Cuba’s north coast, but said power had been restored in most eastern provinces — the first to be lashed by Irma’s high winds.

“These have been the dog days. In recent weeks, in the whole town, there was an epidemic of Zika and conjunctivitis, and to top it off, the cyclone left us without light,” said Olga Lydia Ulloa, who lives in Cienfuegos, far from Irma’s path. Nevertheless, she said that Cienfuegos hadn’t had power since the storm passed through.

“We have a lot of little kids and nothing to cook with,” Ulloa told the independent Cuban news service 14ymedio.

Like hurricane victims across the southern U.S., Cubans have become obsessed with recharging mobile phones that have died since the power went out.

Cubans were lining up outside poli-clinics — not because they were sick but because they wanted to plug in their cellphones and recharge, reported 14ymedio. Many were desperate to get news of their families in Florida who also faced Irma and to tell them how they had fared.

Cuba Hurricane Irma
Ramon Espinosa AP

Cuban civil defense officials said 1,400 educational facilities, 500 in Havana alone, had been affected by Irma. The Ministry of Education has not set a date for when classes will resume, but said schools were being cleaned and readied as quickly as possible for resumption of the school year.

Some things were getting back to normal in hard-hit Cuba.

Operations for national and international flights resumed at José Martí International Airport, which serves Havana, at noon on Tuesday. The international airport in the resort city of Varadero began international operations at 8 a.m., according to ACN, the Cuban news agency.

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