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Cubans Eye Michelle's Destruction

As Hurricane Michelle left the Caribbean, Cuban officials began calculating the damage: at least five dead, countless more homeless after their flimsy houses were toppled, acres of sugar cane flattened and thousands of farm animals killed.

Two days after the storm slammed into the island with 135-mph winds, many in the worst-hit areas remain isolated, without power, telephone service or potable water. With many roads flooded or blocked by trees, Cuban Communist Party officials took a helicopter Tuesday for their first look at the devastated southern coast.

"I don't even have a place to live, nowhere to put myself," said Elizabeth Blanco, a resident of Soplillar who wept as she appealed to government officials for help.

"Thankfully we are alive. Imagine how we feel here, we feel lost," Blanco said, showing the little she still had — a mattress, kitchen implements and the wood and straw that was her home.

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An Associated Press Television News cameraman went along on the flight, capturing some of the first images of damage in the more remote areas, of dead farm animals, tiny homes fully submerged by flood waters and sugar mills ripped apart.

Cuba's Civil Defense confirmed Tuesday its earlier announcement of five storm-related deaths in Havana and Matanzas provinces. Four died in building collapses, a fifth drowned off Matanzas province when Michelle struck Sunday afternoon.

In Soplillar, the Matanzas province town where Michelle made landfall, about 100 of the community's 156 thatched-roof homes were destroyed.

No one was killed in this town of about 500, in the Cienaga de Zapata municipality not far from the Bay of Pigs, where Fidel Castro's government forces repelled an invading army of CIA-back exiles in 1961.

Cienaga de Zapata has about 9,000 inhabitants and can be easily evacuated. By the time the storm arrived, everyone had found shelter in sturdier structures, officials said.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Wednesday that Michelle had drifted into open water north of Bermuda and was no longer a hurricane.

Soplillar saw a similar storm in 1996, when Hurricane Lili followed a path much like Michelle's, first striking the southern coast then moving north across the island. That storm caused extensive agricultural damage and left thousands of people homeless.

Material damages are extensive this time, too. In Matanzas province, an important sugar producing region, nine of 20 sugar mills were severely damaged and acres of sugar cane were leveled by Michelle's winds.

Matanzas produces about 420,000 tons of sugar annually, more than a tenth of the national production of about 3.86 million tons. Although not as crucial to the centralized economy as it once was, sugar remains an important export.

While sugar cane in this province has been harvested by machine in recent years, the harvest that begins next month will have to be collected by hand — costing more time and money.

The province's iportant egg industry also was devastated. Chicken farms were damaged and many of the estimated 1 million birds were killed or injured, party officials said.

The only two major industries that did not suffer structural damage from the storm are also the two most important for the nation as a whole: tourism and petroleum.

Matanzas produces 1.76 tons of petroleum annually, or 50 percent of the national production.

This province also is home to Varadero Beach on Cuba's northern coast, Cuba's most important tourist destination. With its scores of beachfront hotels, discos, restaurants and other tourist attractions, Varadero suffered only minor damage — shattered windows and broken roof tiles.

Before striking Cuba, Hurricane Michelle killed 12 people in Honduras, Nicaragua and Jamaica, where homes were destroyed and roads and bridges were washed out.

Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson said Tuesday that the government would spend $24.3 million to help the island recover from weeklong rains.

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