Nation & World

Cuba: Gustav is worst storm to hit the island in 50 years

PALACIOS, Cuba — Some residents of picturesque Los Palacios, a town in Pinar del Rio province whose name mean the palaces, have already rebaptized their town: They now call it The Ruins.

In the storm Cuban authorities are saying caused the worst damage in 50 years, Los Palacios was the first that lay directly in the path of Hurricane Gustav.

When it made landfall Saturday evening, it was a Category 4 hurricane, with wind speeds exceeding 130 miles per hour and gusts of more than 200 mph.

"The devil came through here. It swept it completely,'' said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, who works for the municipal school management office and spent the night guarding the building.

Rodriguez estimates that 90 percent of the homes in the town were damaged and that 50 percent of the city's powerlines were down. No deaths or severe injuries were reported, however.

"This is very sad. It's unbearable to watch,'' a woman said, as she burst into tears and walked away without giving her name.

Authorities called the storm damage the worst since 1956. The 212-mph gusts registered in the city of Paso Real de San Diego were the highest in Cuba's history, according to the provincial newspaper, the Guerrillero. Winds were so strong that the weather station instruments broke.

"Things that seemed safe are damaged,'' Ana Isa Delgado, president of the municipal civil defense committee was quoted saying in Sunday's state media. "Cars in parking lots went flying. Others are twisted. Rooftop water tanks, window and doors have been ripped out. Avenues are unpassable.''

The highway to Pinar del RÏo offers some inkling of the devastation. Tree branches partially block the road and electric towers lie on the ground, twisted, like a row of fallen dominoes as far as the eye can see. Entire fields of banana trees have been flattened.

At a police control station, all the lampposts have toppled over and the metal mobile structure lies upside down in a ditch.

In San Cristobal, fallen branches and tree trunks block the main street into the town. Many houses have lost their roofs or are flooded.

But that pales in comparison to Los Palacios, where the town is a tableau of downed power lines, shattered roofing tiles, broken masonry from ornamental columns, random bits of wood, unhinged doors, battered blue telephone booths, and corrugated metal sheets that once served as roofs. Dogs and chickens roam the streets.

All the windows are gon from main school's upper floor. Many houses lost their roofs and others have collapsed completely.

"îThis has been the worst,'' Rodriguez said. "It will take us at least six months to get back to a basic level of infrastructure.''

There's no electricity, no gas, no fuel and no running water, although Rodriguez said residents have enough drinking water stored for 72 hours. Some residents looked dazed as they contemplated the damage from their porches. Others carried buckets or plastic bags filled with personal belongings . Light rain fell.

An elderly man gathered pieces of clay tiles with a hoe. A few blocks ahead, a woman swept her wet front porch. There was no flooding in Los Palacios, but the rain seeped into many homes and also fell directly into those who lost their roofs.

Many had terrifying stories.

"I stayed in my closet with my two children and prayed the whole time,'' said Mabel Ayerbe, a 36 year-old housewife. Her sons are 5 and 6. "The little one was crying and the older one wanted to see the wind. The first pass took about two hours. Then we were in the eye for some 45 minutes and the weather was totally clear. After the eye it lost some strength but the first pass was violent.''

"I don't want to see this again,'' she said. "It was terrible."

Jose, 56, who did not want his last name used, recalled wind gusts ripping water tanks off the roof. Then, he said, "My roof caved in."

Residents expected more devastation on the beach, some 20 miles away, where many have second homes. The sea surged five miles inland, they said, and they have no idea how their houses have fared. Authorities are blocking access to the area.

This article was reported by a Miami Herald correspondent in Cuba, whose name is being withheld because the journalist did not have the journalism visa required by the Cuban government. Miami Herald correspondent Frances Robles contributed from Miami.

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