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

In coastal towns and cities from Baracoa in the east to west of Havana, people picked through collapsed and damaged homes trying to salvage what they could. Furniture, appliances and other household items were stacked in front of homes to dry out. In homes that had been flooded, Cubans shoveled out mud on Tuesday.

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.

Cuba continued the overwhelming task Tuesday 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 water shortages in Havana and the central and western provinces for drinking, cooking and bathing.

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

Power outages, broken pipes and other infrastructure damages 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.

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

The independent news service 14ymedio reported that Cubans were lining up outside poli-clinics — not because they were sick but because they wanted to plug in their cellphones and recharge. 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. Cuba resumed operations for national and international flights at José Martí International Airport, which serves Havana, at noon on Tuesday. The international airport in the resort city of Varadero resumed international operations at 8 a.m., according to ACN, the Cuban news agency.

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 neighbors 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.