Wilma's massive waves crash into Cuban capital

Massive waves churned up by Hurricane Wilma crashed into Cuba’s capital city early on Monday, flooding the Malecon coastal highway and seeping into nearby neighbourhoods of old, crumbling buildings.

Wilma’s outer bands drenched western Cuba as the hurricane approached Florida, flooding evacuated communities along the island’s southern coast. The extent of damage in Cuba’s north was not immediately known.

The ocean penetrated up to four blocks into Havana’s coastal neighbourhoods, with flood waters reaching up to a metre in some places. Basement apartments were submerged.

In some neighbourhoods, residents left their homes in their underclothes to investigate the damage.
Downed trees, branches and other debris littered streets and highways.

In the Port of Mariel, east of Havana, residents watched in awe as huge waves several metres high rolled in one after another. Part of a concrete retaining wall protecting the city from the ocean had crumbled, but otherwise no major damage was evident.

“Last night was really tense, just waiting for what might happen,” said Joelsis Calderin (30). “I’ve never seen waves like this. You have to respect the sea.”

“Come on over,” another Mariel resident, Sussel Acosta, joked to her neighbours. “Everyone’s catching fish at my front door.”

The government shut down electrical power throughout the capital and across the island’s west—a standard safety precaution—in the pre-dawn hours as high winds howled across the island.

Late on Sunday, President Fidel Castro appeared on television to calm Cubans anticipating increased winds and flooding as Wilma passed by en route to Florida. He also offered to send Cuban doctors to Mexico to help in recovery work after Wilma clobbered the Yucatan Peninsula.

“It’s the appropriate time to offer the people of Mexico the support they need,” Castro said.

Cuba recently sent 400 doctors to Guatemala after Hurricane Stan’s devastating passage through Central America, as well 200 doctors to Pakistan after that nation’s October 8 earthquake.

Castro praised the island’s efficiency in hurricane preparation, saying that despite scarce resources, Cuba has become internationally recognised as “a model country that protects the lives of its citizens”.

Cuba prides itself on protecting lives during frequent hurricanes affecting the island, and its civil defence plans have been held up by the United Nations as a model for other nations.

Mandatory, widespread evacuations are common and face little resistance.

The government in recent days evacuated nearly 700 000 people, particularly in the island’s west, the official National Information Agency said on Monday.

Some people were ordered by civil defence officials to leave their homes as early as Wednesday, with most staying with friends and relatives, and the rest at shelters set up at schools and other government buildings.

Cuban state television reported on Sunday that the ocean had penetrated up to 1km in some southern coastal communities.

Guanimar, a small fishing village of brightly painted wooden houses due south of Havana, was totally submerged on Sunday, with floodwaters as high as 1m in some places. The community frequently floods during hurricanes and its several hundred residents had been evacuated.

In another southern coastal community, Playa Cajio, the sea carried numerous fish up on to the main highway, state television said.

Wilma spun off several tornadoes over the weekend that left six injured and destroyed more than 20 homes and tobacco curing houses in the country’s western tobacco-growing region.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writer Vanessa Arrington contributed to this report from Mariel, Cuba