Hurricane Ivan bombarded western Cuba with the full fury of a Category 5 killer storm Monday night, damaging hundreds of homes with crushing winds, crashing 15-foot waves into the Isle of Youth and swamping at least two towns.
“The situation is bad, very, very, bad,” a woman huddled in her home in Pinar del Rio province told The Miami Herald by telephone Monday night. Wind howled in the background. “We’ve been told it’s going to get a lot worse. We are in a difficult situation.”
The hurricane seemed to mushroom in size Monday night even as it maintained its deadly power. It was so vast that its clouds simultaneously covered Cuba, the Florida Keys, the entire Florida peninsula and portions of the Bahamas, Mexico, Belize and Honduras.
And it was heading toward Florida. Forecasters posted a hurricane watch Monday night on the entire Florida Panhandle and as far west as Morgan City, La., including New Orleans.
Ivan has killed at least 68 people during its slow trek through the Caribbean, and it is the second hurricane in about a month to hit Cuba. Hurricane Charley left five dead in Cuba and $1 billion in damage.
On Monday, the weather station in Sandino, a town in Pinar del Rio, reported 125-mph sustained winds and 160-mph gusts from Ivan. That station and others soon “lost all communications with the external world,” according to an amateur radio operator in Pinar del Rio city.
After arousing hope that its fierce inner core would bypass Cuba, Ivan veered closer, striking the island’s western tip with the eastern edge of the catastrophic eye wall, rocking it with wind and rain.
Still, it appeared that the nation at large was granted a reprieve and would not be savaged. Westernmost Cuba is sparsely populated, and Havana and areas east of it were not expected to experience hurricane-force winds.
Cuban President Fidel Castro, who traveled Monday to Pinar del Rio, praised Ivan’s “courteous attitude.” He said Cuba would “avoid damage and expenses that otherwise would have been incurred” if the core had bisected the main island.
At the same time, though, a wide region between Havana and the western tip of Cuba remained in danger early Tuesday. Ivan was a huge storm and its effects were sprawling and perilous.
“We’re worried and frightened,” one resident of the Isle of Youth told The Herald by telephone.
No new casualty reports were immediately available Monday as Cuba again absorbed a hurricane’s torrential rain, shrieking wind and rushing, 20-foot storm surge.
The surge, a wall of water that precedes the eye wall, reportedly covered the fishing towns of La Coloma and Cortes in the province of Pinar del Rio. The populations of both towns had been evacuated and much of the province was flooded.
“They’re reporting a lot of water,” said Osvaldo Pla, an amateur radio operator for Brothers to the Rescue in Miami, who monitored ham radio transmissions from Cuba.
An amateur radio operator in Cuba reported that phone and power lines were down in Pinar del Rio province and that the storm surge invaded three city blocks along the southern coast.
A ham radio report from Isabel Rubio, a small town in westernmost Pinar del Rio, reported some structural damage to buildings in nearby Sandino.
“Now telephone poles are going down,” the report said. “No electricity in the west Pinar del Rio area is available.”
Other amateur radio reported “hundreds of trees” down through out much of western Pinar del Rio.
Authorities there said 130,000 of the province’s 1.3 million people had been evacuated from their homes into schools, government buildings, hotels and neighbors” houses.
A woman who was riding out the storm with her 2-year-old daughter and two aunts told The Herald in a telephone interview she had board up her windows with plywood handed out by the government.
Rain had not stopped since early Monday morning, intensifying as the day wore on, she said.
“We”re a little bored, but that is not important,” she said. “We’ve seen what’s happened elsewhere in the Caribbean where Ivan struck and we’re intent on saving lives at all costs.”
Earlier in the day, powerful winds and heavy rainfall knocked out electricity in some parts of the Isle of Youth, flooded streets in many areas, and washed out part of a highway on the eastern edge of the island.
Havana reported heavy rain and moderate wind, and Cuban provinces to the east barely felt the storm.
“It’s not coming here,” said one confident man sitting with his family in their apartment doorway in central Havana. “We got lucky.”
In Havana and Matanzas, where people had been expecting the worst for days, a cautious sense of relief prevailed Monday night.
“Imagine how relieved we feel,” a Matanzas woman told The Herald by telephone. “Our lives are unlucky enough. We were expecting the worst since the beginning and I have been glued to the radio, listening to all the bulletins.”
There was one remaining fear: more blackouts than usual.
“We have to take advantage of the daylight hours,” said another Matanzas woman, cooking a dinner of eggs and rice earlier than usual, just in case. “It’s usually pretty bad anyway, but today we expected it to be worse.”
While Castro seemed pleased with Ivan’s path, other officials took to the airwaves to remind residents of the storm”s dangers.
“Don’t take any unnecessary risks,” Civil Defense Lt. Col. Domingo Carretero said on state television. “Don’t go outside. Don’t go on your balconies. Don’t cross rivers that are swelling. Don’t touch severed electricity cables.”
Jose Rubiera, Cuba’s chief meteorologist, said Ivan wasn’t through with Cuba. Western provinces, plus other areas, still faced great danger, he said.
“No one should think that it is gone, that we are safe _ that is not true,” Rubiera said in a broadcast.
Posted to the wbe by Cecelia Francisco