Strong surf pounds eastern Cuban coast as Irma marches west

Surf surged over the seawall in Baracoa on Cuba’s eastern tip as Hurricane Irma began a side swipe Friday along Cuba’s northern coast, flooding streets and knocking out electricity in a city already ravaged by a hurricane last year.

At noon the center of Irma, now a Category 4 hurricane, was about 118 miles east northeast of Nuevitas in Camagüey province. Cuban meteorologists say the island is taking an indirect hit from Irma with tropical-storm-force winds buffeting the coastline. But the most damage is expected to come from water.

Waves of 13 to 16 feet have caused coastal flooding from Gibara to Baracoa and heavy rain is pelting the northern coast. The Palenque de Yateras in Guantánamo province recorded 4.6 inches of rain in 24 hours.

“Now Baracoa is under the effects of Hurricane Irma, luckily we have only experienced rains, sea penetrations and some winds… but sincerely, nothing compared to what we were expecting,” Radio Baracoa posted on its Facebook page at 9 a.m. Friday. More than 25,000 people from the city were evacuated to safer areas.

Last year Hurricane Matthew reduced many homes to tinder, collapsed roads, took out nearly an entire 656-foot bridge and severely damaged the electrical grid as it tore through Baracoa, a historic city on Cuba’s eastern tip.

Although Irma’s maximum sustained winds are near 150 mph, Cuba won’t receive their full force.

As Irma continued its northwestward march, winds were expected to pick up with speeds of up to 62 mph and higher gusts along Cuba’s northeast coast. The Punta de Maisí meteorologist station on Cuba’s far eastern tip reported maximum sustained winds of 37 miles per hour Friday morning with gusts of up to 58 miles per hour.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the provinces of Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, and Villa Clara in Cuba’s central region. Cuba has declared a state of alarm in Villa Clara, Sancti Spíritus, Cienfuegos and Matanzas provinces. The capital, Havana, was placed under a state of alert.

Irma was swirling off the coast of Cuba on the feast day of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the island’s patron saint, and the well-being of the Cuban people was included in many prayers.

Cuban civil defense forces evacuated tens of thousands of people in low-lying areas along Cuba’s northern coast, but six dolphin from the Delfinario in the resort island of Cayo Guillermo also were among the evacuees. They were wrapped in wet towels and taken out by helicopter so they wouldn’t be harmed by Irma. Tourists were bused out from the many resorts that dot Cuba’s northern coast cays.

Cuba Hurricane Irma (2)

Tourists are evacuated by bus ahead of Hurricane Irma in Caibarien, on the north coast of central Cuba.

Desmond Boylan AP

Earlier this week intense efforts were underway to bring in the rice harvest, move cattle to higher ground and harvest and distribute bananas from low-lying areas of Granma province so they wouldn’t go to waste, according to Cuban state media.

Strong swells from the northeast coast to central Cuban beaches were expected to pick up strength through the afternoon and waves could reach 19 to nearly 30 feet. From Cabo Cruz to Punta Maisí, waves from 6.5 feet to nearly 10 feet were expected.