Wary Cuba Eyes Ivan

Cubans begin evacuating from their homes Sunday Sept. 12, 2004 in Havana, Cuba before Hurricane Ivan's arrival. About half a million of people are being evacuated to shelters as they expect Ivan to hit western Cuba between Sunday night and Monday morning.. (AP Photo/Cristobal Herrera) AP

As Hurricane Ivan's path steers to the northwest away from the Cuban coast, the island's government and people shared a collective sigh of relief, reports CBS News producer Portia Siegelbaum in Havana.

But with hurricane force winds extending outward up to 105 miles from Ivan's center and tropical storm winds reaching out as far as 200 miles, Cuba's civil defense officials rushed residents of low lying areas along the island's southern coast into shelters. More than 1.3 million out of a total population of 11.2 million Cubans have been evacuated from their homes across the island.

And some Cubans who'd dubbed the storm "Ivan the Terrible" began calling it "Tal Ivan", which is just Spanish for "that Ivan" but when pronounced sounds like "Taliban".

Cuba's top meteorologist Jose Rubiera went on national television at 9 a.m. Monday morning to warn people that "just because the storm has moved toward Yucatan does not mean there is no danger". He stressed that while the westernmost half of Pinar del Rio will receive the brunt of the powerful category five winds and rain, residents in the capital may also be pelted with intense precipitation.

A hurricane warning is still in effect for Cuba from western Pinar del Rio province to Ciego de Avila in the center of the island, including the Isle of Youth south of the mainland. A hurricane watch is in effect for the rest of the island where storm surge brought some flooding Sunday along the southern coast of Santiago de Cuba and other eastern and central regions.

A CBS crew in Pinar del Rio Monday morning reported rain and some wind but clearly the worst is still to come. Rubiera predicted that Ivan would begin pounding western Cuba between 5 and 6 p.m.

In a public advisory the U.S. National Hurricane Center said "coastal storm surge flooding of 20 to 25 feet—locally higher … along with large and dangerous battering waves" could be expected if the storm center makes landfall in western Cuba.

In anticipation of this, the entire population of nearly 7,000 in the fishing village of La Coloma evacuated Sunday. Truck and buses carried men, women and children, as well as pets and even chickens to shelters set up by the government in nearby boarding schools. Early in the week over 300,000 boarding school students were sent home to make room for the evacuees.

At least 65 people have been killed by Ivan as it stormed across the Caribbean and Cuba's socialist government which boasts of its extremely low hurricane-related-death rate made evacuations obligatory. Still officials were aware that Ivan is the worst storm to confront the island since Fidel Castro ousted Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

As the afternoon wore on in La Coloma Sunday, two men struggled to carry an ancient battered refrigerator to the home of a neighbor on higher ground. "We still haven't recovered from hurricanes Lili and Isidore in 2002," one of them shouted as we passed by. No one in Cuba has home or property insurance which makes their losses all the harder to bear.

Many La Coloma families were anxious to leave and got out early but as rain began pelting the town in the early evening some inhabitants huddled under shop awnings clasping plastic bags snuffed with clothes and other treasured items still waiting for buses to take them to shelters.

Local police and civil defense workers were out rounding up stragglers and those reluctant to leave. One old man stubbornly dug in his heels, as his neighbors, some clutching their pet dogs, watched with amusement from the evacuation bus. In exasperation, one of the cops shouted at him, "You'd better get moving." Then turning to his partner, he griped, "I don't want to be held responsible if he gets carried off by the Hurricane".

Like farmers in the rest of the island, Pinar del Rio's famed tobacco growers rushed to protect their harvest from Ivan's assault. The most famous Cuban cigars are hand-rolled from leaves grown in this region and represent an important source of hard currency earnings for the Castro government.

Just how big the country's economic losses from Ivan will be is anyone's guess at this point. Havana estimates a billion dollars worth of damages from Category 2 Hurricane Charley which struck the island exactly one month ago.

Earlier in the week, Evelio Saura, the top government official in Havana Province said they'd barely made a dent in repairing the damage from that storm. "Forty-one thousand homes in the province were damage or destroyed by Charley," he said, adding that the government has repaired only 6,000 to date. Fearing further damage from this new hurricane, Saura called a halt on all home construction until the threat poised by Ivan passes.

The greatest concern of those whose homes lie in Hurricane Ivan's destructive path is how and when they will be able to rebuild their dwellings. An extended family of ten evacuating their shanty town homes in Tobaco, Guanajay municipality, bordering Pinar del Rio complained that the government had still not delivered the new mattresses it promised after they lost all to Charley.

Nevertheless, Jorge Luis Sosa who has lived 40 of his 50 years there was philosophical. As he watched the younger members of the clan load their meager belonging onto an ancient bus, Sosa said, "I have faith. … I'll rebuild again."

By Portia Siegelbaum
  • Lloyd Vries

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