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Cuba faces long recovery from storm

Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI -- In coastal towns and cities from Baracoa in the east to west of Havana, residents picked through collapsed and damaged homes Tuesday trying to salvage what they could. Furniture, appliances and other household items were stacked outside to dry out. And at houses that had been flooded, Cubans shoveled mounds of mud that filled the air with the stench of raw sewage.

"I have lived in this place since I was born, and I have never seen anything like this," Oscar Rodriguez told the independent Cuban news service 14ymedio as he paused from shoveling mud from every crevice of his home on Gervasio Street near the Malecon. "We have had floods, but (the water) has not passed the door sill. We lost two mattresses, the refrigerator got quite wet, and the television in the living room fell in the water when we tried to put it higher."

As Cubans tried to dry out from the effects of Hurricane Irma, the government said restoring the electric grid, dealing with water shortages and resuming the school year were its main priorities. Meanwhile residents continued the overwhelming task of mopping up after the massive storm, which left 10 dead in Cuba in the 72 hours it rolled across the island's northern coast.

Not only were wide swaths of the country left in the dark without electrical power, but Cuba was experiencing shortages of water for drinking, cooking and bathing in Havana and the central and western provinces.

The lack of water also is raising concerns about health issues, and UNICEF said it is sending 3 million chlorine tablets to Cuba.

Hurricane Irma was one for the record books in Cuba.

Granma, the newspaper of Cuba's Communist Party, reported that Irma-driven coastal flooding was perhaps the most severe that Cuba has ever experienced. The flooding reached nearly 5 feet in some areas, including neighborhoods bordering Havana's seaside Malecon.

Low-lying areas of Central Havana often flood during heavy rains or winter storms, but residents said they had never seen anything like the high water that Irma pushed ashore. Many people were trapped in their homes, and some on lower levels who hadn't evacuated had to be rescued as the water continued to rise.

Cuban meteorologist Jose Rubiera said Irma also set another record: remaining a Category 5 hurricane for nearly 72 straight hours. Last Sunday, Irma's powerful winds could be felt from Artemisa province in western Cuba to Sancti Spiritus in the central part of the island. Cuban meteorologists said such an extensive area of Cuba hadn't been affected by a hurricane since the hurricane of Oct. 18, 1944.

Power outages, broken pipes and other infrastructure damages from Irma were blamed for water cutoffs to homes, but Cubans with cisterns and wells also said their water stocks were contaminated with flood waters.

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