Ivan slams Cayman Islands

Cuba evacuates 1.3 million

Hurricane Ivan

Rural Cuba braces for heavy flooding

September 13, 2004|By Gary Marx | Gary Marx,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LA COLOMA, Cuba - Lugging food, clothing and other possessions, residents evacuated this coastal town yesterday as Cubans throughout the western part of the island braced for Hurricane Ivan, a powerful storm that has killed at least 65 people.

Yet, while Ivan is expected this afternoon or evening to pound western Cuba, a rural area known for its tobacco production and tourist sites, the storm had veered west and was not likely to make what could have been a catastrophic strike on Havana, the nation's capital.

The Category 5 hurricane packing winds of up to 150 mph and torrential rains battered the Cayman Islands yesterday, flooding homes, ripping off roofs and felling trees as it marched slowly toward Cuba and, eventually, Florida's Gulf Coast.

High winds prevented officials from assessing damage immediately. But Donnie Ebanks, deputy chairman of the Cayman Islands' National Hurricane Committee, estimated that as many as half of Grand Cayman's 15,000 homes were damaged.

Cuban officials have evacuated more than 1.3 million of the island's 11.2 million residents, including the 7,000 residents of La Coloma, 115 miles west of Havana, which could be inundated by a storm surge reaching more than a mile inland.

Major preparations

With military-style precision, thousands more Cubans were evacuated from other coastal regions, along with residents of high-rise buildings and those living in precarious structures that officials fear may not withstand Ivan's intense winds and heavy rains.

"We are afraid of the penetration of the sea. The water was up to here during the last hurricane," said Estalin Amentero, a 34-year-old La Coloma resident, pointing to a spot 4-feet high in his home.

Amentero, his wife and child joined scores of La Coloma residents waiting along the roadside for buses and cars to take them to nearby shelters or to the homes of friends or relatives to ride out what could be the most powerful storm to strike Cuba since 1924.

Assisting them was Ivan Gonzalez, a local government employee, who explained that the mandatory evacuation yesterday in La Coloma began about 8 a.m.

"We are going to evacuate everyone," he said. "No one can stay behind because of the risk."

Nearby, in the city of Pinar del Rio, residents of a 12-story building spent yesterday morning hammering wooden planks, logs and cardboard into place to buttress flimsy windows and doors before evacuating the building.

Angel Antonio Padron, a 38-year-old resident who earns a living pedaling a bicycle taxi, secured the windows of his third-floor apartment using logs and fishing line.

"This one is strong, but this one will not hold up," said Padron, shaking the windows.

Harbors secured

Mindful of the destruction left by Ivan across the Caribbean, Cuban President Fidel Castro and other officials in this communist nation began mobilizing civil defense troops and state workers days ago to combat the storm.

Plantain, tobacco and other crops have been placed in storage. Pigs, chickens and other animals have been moved to safety. Schools throughout the island have been turned into makeshift shelters, while boats have been dry-docked or secured in harbors.

Portraying the storm's fury as just another challenge for this impoverished and besieged nation, Castro has appeared on national television several times in recent days and compared the potential destruction of Ivan to an atomic bomb.

Dressed in olive-green military fatigues, the 78-year-old leader has spent hours on TV peppering the nation's top meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, and other officials with questions about the storm and Cuba's readiness.

Last night, Castro urged Cubans to "follow the instructions of the state to the letter."

Ivan is the second hurricane to lash Cuba in a month. Hurricane Charley plowed through Cuba just west of Havana on Aug. 13, killing at least four people and causing more than $1 billion damage.

But Charley was a Category 3 storm on a scale of 5 while Ivan has fluctuated between a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. The last time Cuba was hit by two hurricanes of such power in one year was 1948.

At least 60 people have been killed by Ivan across the Caribbean so far, including 34 in Grenada and 11 in Jamaica.

Warnings in Mexico

As Ivan moved northwest at about 10 mph, the Mexican government yesterday issued a hurricane watch and tropical storm warning for the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula.

Cuba's all-important tourist industry has been affected by the approaching storm as more than 7,100 tourists have been evacuated from western and central Cuba.

At least one of those evacuated expressed little fear.

"I am not afraid," said Rene Seiffert, 29, who is part of a group of scuba divers from Germany. "It's my first hurricane. I'm a bit curious."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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