Hurricane Irma lashes northern coast of Cuba

Hurricane Irma battered much of the keys on the northern coast of Cuba as well as central coastal towns, and threatened to hit the capital city of Havana with severe flooding as forecasters predicted that monster waves as high as 30 feet would likely crash over the Malecón seawall by Saturday night.

The coastal town of Caibarién was overcome with deafening winds and unremitting rain, pushing seawater inland and flooding homes, according to various reports, although authorities have not yet issued a formal assessment on damages. Meanwhile Ciego de Ávila, in central Cuba, was walloped with 160-mph winds.

Hurricane Irma swept the entire central north coast of Cuba and continued to flex its muscle as it moved toward Florida. More than one million people were evacuated across the island, most of them taking shelter in the homes of relatives and neighbors, the national press reported.

At 2 p.m., Irma moved slowly at 9 miles per hour and was 65 miles east of the famed Varadero beach resort area. But its impact with land did help weaken the storm, which was downgraded to a category 3.

But Irma was a mighty category 5 when it began to lash the island Saturday morning.

CNN correspondent Patrick Oppman, who reported from Caibarién, said that floodwater reached as high as five feet and several homes were destroyed. The village’s waterfront, from which 12,000 people had been evacuated, was completely underwater.

“The winds are so strong that even the park’s banks have been blown off,” Cubadebate reported.

Several foreign reporters who spent the night in the nearby town of Remedios, were faced with Irma’s wrath when strong winds knocked down the door of the hotel. An employee of another luxury hotel, Iberostar Ensenachos in Cayo Santamaria, said strong bursts of wind bent trees and pushed water tanks several feet. A photo published in Cubadebate showed a telephone tower knocked down in Cayo Coco.

In Yaguajay, in Sancti Spiritus, there were reports of roofs ripped off of homes. Strong wind gusts also could be felt further inland, including the central city of Santa Clara.

In Havana, fear of flooding and further damage spurred mandatory evacuations for those in areas near the Malecón, including the highly populated neighborhoods of Central Havana, Vedado and Miramar. Even Cienfuegos, on the south coast, experienced strong winds and floods.

The eye of the storm was projected to pass near Sagua la Grande, in Villa Clara, by early afternoon and could approach Cárdenas, in Matanzas, in which 3,000 people living in flood zones were evacuated.

Preliminary reports from the newspaper Granma, said the eastern zone had been sparred from major damage. However, the telecommunications company ETECSA reported that 174 Wi-Fi site had been affected. And images from Gibara, a coastal town in Holguín, showed huge waves as tall as 26 feet crashing over a seawall, fallen trees and destroyed homes.

Cuban officials said Hurricane Irma damaged crops in the rural eastern part of the country.

Civil Defense official Gergorio Torres told reporters that authorities were still trying to tally the extent of damage in Las Tunas province and nearby areas. He said damage seems to have been concentrated in infrastructure for crops including bananas.

Eastern Cuba is home to the island’s poor, rural population. Once known for sugarcane and other crops, the agricultural industry was declining even before the hurricane.

Video images from northern and eastern Cuba showed utility poles and signs uprooted by the storm and many fallen trees as well as extensive damage to roofs. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Cuban television reported heavy damage to tourist facilities in Santa Lucia, Camagüey and floods in other towns on the north coast. In Nuevitas, several factories and warehouses lost their roofs and several units of the Thermoelectric Power Plant ceased operations.

“It’s a total disaster,” Dianelys Alvarez, reached by cellphone, told the Washington Post adding that not a single tree remained standing.

“The streets are full of rubble. There are houses with their roofs ripped off,” she said. “Even the oldest trees in town have been knocked down.”

Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.

Nora Gámez Torres: 305-376-2169, @ngameztorres