CAIBARIEN, Cuba – Hurricane Irma ripped roofs off houses and flooded hundreds of miles of coastline as it raked Cuba’s northern coast after devastating islands the length of the Caribbean in a trail of destruction that has left 22 people dead so far.
As Irma left Cuba late Saturday and directed its 120 mph (195 kph) winds toward Florida, authorities on the island were assessing the damage and warning of staggering damage to keys off the northern coast studded with all-inclusive resorts and cities, as well as farmland in central Cuba.
There were no immediate reports of deaths in Cuba – a country that prides itself on its disaster preparedness – but authorities were trying to restore power, clear roads and warning that people should stay off the streets of Havana because flooding could continue into Monday.
Residents of “the capital should know that the flooding is going to last more than 36 hours, in other words, it is going to persist,” Civil Defence Col. Luis Angel Macareno said late Saturday, adding that the waters had reach at about 2,000 feet (600 metres) into Havana.
As Irma rolled in, Cuban soldiers went through coastal towns to force residents to evacuate, taking people to shelters at government buildings and schools — and even caves.
Video images from northern and eastern Cuba showed uprooted utility poles and signs, many downed trees and extensive damage to roofs. Witnesses said a provincial museum near the eye of the storm was in ruins. And authorities in the city of Santa Clara said 39 buildings collapsed.
More than 5,000 tourists were evacuated from the keys off Cuba’s north-central coast, where the government has built dozens of resorts in recent years.
Civil Defence official Gregorio Torres said authorities were trying to tally the extent of the damage in eastern Cuba, home to hundreds of rural communities and farmland.
In Caibarien, a small coastal city about 200 miles (320 kilometres) east of Havana, winds downed power lines and a three-block area was under water. Many residents had stayed put, hoping to ride out the storm.
Before slamming into Cuba, Irma had caused havoc in the Caribbean, where it ravaged such lush resort islands as St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.
Many of Irma’s victims fled their battered islands on ferries and fishing boats for fear Hurricane Jose would destroy or drench anything Irma left untouched, but Jose veered away before doing much more damage.
On the Dutch side of St. Martin, an island divided between French and Dutch control, an estimated 70 per cent of the homes were destroyed by Irma, according to the Dutch government.
Prime Minister William Marlin said about 1,600 tourists had been evacuated and efforts were being made to move 1,200 more.
Marlin said many countries and people have offered help to St. Maarten, but authorities were waiting on the weather conditions to see how it could be co-ordinated. Authorities are still trying to determine the extent of damage to the island but he said 28 police officers lost homes during the storms.
The U.S. State Department helped more than 500 Americans fly out of St. Martin, starting with those in need of urgent medical care, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Carol Basch, a 53-year-old tourist from Savannah, Georgia, took refuge during the storm in the bathroom of her St. Martin hotel room after windows shattered. She stayed there praying for about four hours, surrounding herself with pillows.
“I kept saying, ‘Lord, please stop this, and soon, soon,'” said Basch, who was evacuated to Puerto Rico. “I’m glad I’m alive. I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Some islands received a last-minute reprieve from Jose as it passed by.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center downgraded a hurricane warning for Barbuda and Anguilla. A hurricane watch also was discontinued for nearby Antigua.
Looting was reported on St. Martin. Curfews were imposed there and on St. Barts, and French and Dutch authorities announced plans to send hundreds more troops and police to keep order.
Rodriguez reported from Havana. Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein in Havana; Ben Fox in Miami; Ian Brown in St. Thomas, U.S Virgin Islands; Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Seth Borenstein in Washington; Alina Hartounian in Phoenix; Thomas Adamson and Angela Charlton in Paris; and Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this report.
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