Cuba Braces For Ivan

Cubans evacuate their homes Sunday in La Coloma, near Pinar Del Rio, west of Havana.
With a hurricane warning in effect from Cuba's westernmost province Pinar del Rio to central Ciego de Avila and a hurricane watch established for the rest of the island, massive evacuations are underway, reports CBS News Producer Portia Siegelbaum. Over 800,000 people had been evacuated nationwide by Sunday morning.

Cubans are bracing for a direct hit on the capital where reportedly more than 130,000 people were expected to leave homes that are likely to collapse under the category 5 force winds and intense rains of Hurricane Ivan or because they live in areas threatened by flooding.

More than 30% of the housing in the capital is in "poor or bad" state, according to Havana City Administrative Vice President Carlos Amador. Over 66,000 were evacuated in advance of Hurricane Charley just one month ago. Forty-eight thousand of those were what he called "self-evacuations" or residents who took shelter in the homes of friends or relatives. Charley a category 2 storm passed through just to the west of Havana.

A maternity home for high risk pregnancies in Playa municipality was evacuated to a maternity hospital earlier in the week. "The shock of the storm might be enough to send some of these women into labor. We can't let that happen," said Naomi Herrera, president of a local block committee in the same area. Herrera was on her way to inform a neighbor in her sixth month of pregnancy that she had to be evacuated to the hospital also. "Babies are notorious for coming in the worst possible moments and we can't take any chances."

"It's too risky," chimed in Lazara Atencio, a bookkeeper. "They say it's the worst storm in 50 years," she said before going off in search of containers in which to store water in anticipation of post-hurricane shortages.

Steve Kerr, the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, had to cut short his trade mission to Cuba Saturday and catch the last available flight to Miami. Aviation officials in Havana announced Friday that all national flights would be suspended as of midnight Saturday and all international flights as of Sunday, especially in the western end of the island.

"I'm really angry," Kerr told CBS News, "I've been sitting in my hotel room watching the Weather Channel and they just talk about Cuba as it was nothing more than a barrier island, a buffer for the United States." Said Kerr, "They never talk about what might happen to the people of Cuba, just that it would be good for Florida if the storm lost force when it crosses the island."

Earlier in the week President Fidel Castro said Cuba would not accept aid from those who wage economic warfare against the island, an obvious reference to the United States, which offered $50,000 in aid after Hurricane Charley. Cuba suffered damages totaling an estimated one billion dollars in that storm.

Local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in the capital called neighborhood meetings Saturday evening to make sure people have battened down their homes, stored water and food to last for several days and are aware of civil defense guidelines.

The state-owned media is running constant public advisories on the intense winds and rain that can be expected from Ivan and what needs to be done to protect lives and property. Images of the destruction wrought in Grenada and Jamaica set Cubans worrying.

In a two-hour TV special Friday evening, Lt. Col. Luis Angel Macareño of the National Civil Defense ran down a check list of to-dos for Ivan. Around the city today people were out following his instructions: trimming trees, cleaning drains and yards, removing rooftop antennas and all outdoor signs. Civil Defense bulletins also urge people to store as much water as possible in the likely event they are left without water for an indefinite period following the storm.

But following the guidelines nearly put one 67-year old resident of the Miramar neighborhood in the hospital. After climbing a tree to cut down dead branches and hauling bricks to stack under his refrigerator to save it from potential flood waters, Pablo Verbidsky was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. Luckily they turned out to be from a strained hernia and not a heart attack.

Lacking Home Depots and the opportunity to buy sheets of plywood or storm shutters, most people were making do with masking tape to protect their windows. Tourists were being transferred from the totally glass-fronted Melia Cohiba hotel, just across the street from Havana's seafront drive, to the better protected five-star Hotel Nacional that sits high on promontory along the northern coast.

Tourists were also evacuated from the off-shore key resorts to safe locations.

More than 300,000 boarding school students across the island began returning home early in the week.

According to Macareño all the evacuees are being sent to shelters set up on the ground floor of schools and other public buildings deemed safe. He also said that in areas not threatened by flooding, evacuees might be sent to defense tunnels dug under the city of two million residents during the 1980s and 1990s.

Ivan is expected to reach the Isle of Youth off of Cuba's southern coast Monday morning, one month to the day from Hurricane Charley's passage across the island. But, says Cuba's top meteorologist Jose Rubiera, unlike Charley which crossed at one of Cuba's narrowest points and in just one hour-fifty minutes, Ivan could pummel the island for much longer before leaving via the north shore. Rubiera pointed to the damage left in Charley's wake, warning TV viewers that Ivan is "not just bad but extremely bad."

By Portia Siegelbaum