Recovery efforts are underway in Cuba a day after Hurricane Irma smashed into the country’s north en route towards the Florida Keys.
Hurricane-force winds of 125 mph (over 200 kp/h) whipped roofs clean off buildings, ripped trees from the ground and forced evacuations along the coast.
Irma made landfall in Cuba overnight on Friday as a Category 5 storm, blasting into seaside towns and causing flooding in low-lying areas of the capital Havana.
And as dusk fell on Saturday, the churning waters had moved two blocks inland from the city’s popular seafront boulevard, with waters expected to permeate further as the surge grew, Reuters reported. So far there have been no reports of deaths in Cuba.
The Cuban government had prepared by staging emergency supplies and building equipment ahead of the arrival of Irma.
Authorities also cut power to parts of the city and evacuated around 10,000 people from central Havana amid concerns of storm surge flooding, according to Reuters.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the US has evacuated approximately 1,200 Americans from Dutch-administered St. Marteen in the last 24 hours, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement on Sunday.
The first to be evacuated were those with urgent medical care before flights were suspended due to Hurricane Jose. The State Department said it intends to resume efforts to get US citizens out when it is safe to do so.
There were 24 deaths attributed to Irma throughout the Caribbean.
Poor conditions in Cuba continue
A hurricane warning remained in place as of 8 a.m. ET on Sunday for the Cuban provinces of Matanzas and La Habana.
The latest advisory from the US National Hurricane Center said that the searing winds and vicious rain conditions would continue in Cuba throughout Sunday morning as the storm barrels through the Florida Keys and towards the United States mainland.
Earlier warnings for Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus and Villa Clara were discontinued.
Irma’s blinding rain and powerful winds began pummeling Caibarién, a small coastal city about 320 kilometres east of Havana, late Friday as the outer bands of the massive storm knocked out power in a town that normally would be busy with tourists.
By dawn Saturday, waves were rolling down the town’s main street, and within hours the whole town was flooded with several feet of water.
Most people in the coastal area live in one-story homes, putting them at great risk as floodwaters rose to roof level in some places. Residents were overwhelmed by the damage and said recovery will take time.
Many people had left town over the past couple of days, with all foreigners urged to evacuate. Those who remained were prepared, though they knew this was a storm like few had ever experienced, they told CNN.
Elsewhere in the country, Irma struck the archipelago north of Cuba’s Camaguey and Ciego de Avila provinces with gusts so strong they destroyed an instrument used to measure wind, Cuba’s meteorological agency reported.
Hurricane-strength winds later were recorded in the northern half of Camaguey province, the agency said.
As Irma advanced over neighboring Ciego de Avila province, waves of between 16-and 23 feet waves (5 to 7 meters) were recorded.
Irma was the first Category 5 hurricane to hit Camaguey in 85 years, according to the province’s state media radio station.
In the resort town of Varadero in the Matanzas province, 14,500 foreign tourists rode out the storm, according to state-run news organization Granma.
Devastation left in Irma’s wake
A string of small Caribbean islands was left reeling by Irma. Many islands were still assessing the damage, even as they prepared for the arrival of another major storm, Hurricane Jose.
Of the 24 deaths blamed on Irma in the Caribbean, nine were in various French territories, one in Barbuda, one in Anguilla, two in St. Maarten, four in the British Virgin Islands, four in the US Virgin Islands, and three in Puerto Rico.
The tiny island of Barbuda was perhaps worst hit. Prime Minister Gaston Browne described the result as “total devastation.”
Antigua, Barbuda’s sister island and home to about 80,000 people, was spared the brunt of the storm. Many residents there have been evacuated ahead of Jose.
Looting broke out on the island, home to about 72,000 people, and security forces were deployed to deal with the problem, French and Dutch authorities said Friday.
Irma caused roughly 1.2 billion euros ($1.44 billion) of insured damage in the French portion of St. Martin and in St. Barts, French state-owned insurer CCR said Saturday.
“This amount covers damages to homes, vehicles and businesses (including operating losses) that are covered by the natural disaster compensation scheme,” CCR said.
State of emergency declared
Just to the north, Anguilla, a 90-square kilometer island that is among several British overseas territories in the Caribbean, “received the hurricane’s full blast,” according to UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Alan Duncan.
“All of us have been affected by Irma and some more than others,” Gus Jaspert, governor of the British Virgin Islands, said in a Facebook statement late Thursday in which he declared a state of emergency for the territory.
“Apart from the structural damage, there have sadly been reports of casualties and fatalities,” he said. “I am truly heartbroken by this news.”
Puerto Rico, an unincorporated US territory, managed to avoid a direct hit from Irma but suffered strong winds and torrential rains. Hundreds of thousands of people remained without power on Friday.
Strong winds and heavy rain also lashed the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands Thursday into Friday. The Turks and Caicos’ capital island of Grand Turk suffered “quite a bit of damage,” including to part of a hospital’s roof, Gov. John Freeman told CNN on Friday.