Cuba’s electrical grid has collapsed, leaving the country of 11 million people without power, after Hurricane Ian tore through the western end of the island.
Thousands were evacuated ahead of the violent storm, which made landfall early on Tuesday in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province where much of the tobacco used for its cigars is grown.
Lázaro Guerra, technical director of the Electric Union of Cuba, said a failure in the national electric system, partly as a result of the storm, had affected the power network.
Guerra said teams would work through the night and early on Wednesday to restore power, according to state media.
Cuban residents described “destruction” and posted images on social media of flooded streets and trees brought down by ferocious winds. At the time of impact, the United States National Hurricane Center (NHC) reported Ian’s maximum wind speed at 205km/h (127mph) and said there were “significant wind and storm surge impacts”.
State media said Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited the affected region.
In Consolacion de Sur, southwest of Havana, Caridad Fernandez, 65, said her roof was seriously damaged and water came through her front door.
“Everything we have is damaged,” she said. “But we’ll get through this, we’ll just keep moving forwards.”
In San Juan y Martinez, a hub for the cigar industry, “it was apocalyptic, a real disaster,” Hirochi Robaina, from the Robaina tobacco plantation, said on Facebook.
“I spent the hurricane at home with my husband and the dog. The masonry and zinc roof of the house had just been installed. But the storm tore it down,” said Mercedes Valdés, who lives along the highway connecting Pinar del Río to San Juan y Martínez. “We couldn’t rescue our things … we just ran out.”
Warm seas strengthen the storm
The storm was forecast to strengthen as it crosses warm Gulf of Mexico waters, with winds reaching 225km/h (140mph) on its approach to Florida’s southwest coast.
Winds are expected to reach hurricane force by Wednesday morning.
“Right now, we’re focusing on [the] west central Florida area as the main area for impact,” hurricane specialist Andy Latto told The Associated Press news agency on Tuesday.
Hurricane Ian comes on the heels of Hurricane Fiona, a powerful storm that killed at least a dozen people, knocked out power and caused extensive damage to homes and streets in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Canada.
— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 27, 2022
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said an estimated 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders in the state and warned that damage was expected across a wide area regardless of where Ian made landfall. He urged people to prepare for power cuts and to get out of the storm’s way.
“When you have five to 10 feet of storm surge, that is not something you want to be a part of,” said DeSantis, who declared a statewide emergency and mobilised 5,000 Florida National Guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighbouring states.
“And Mother Nature is a very fearsome adversary,” he said.
US President Joe Biden has declared an emergency over the incoming storm, authorising the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property.
FEMA has strategically positioned generators, as well as millions of meals and millions of litres of water, to help, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Tampa resident Gil Gonzalez boarded his windows with plywood on Tuesday and had sandbags ready to protect his home.
He and his wife had stocked up on bottled water and packed torches, battery packs for their mobile phones and a camp stove with a large propane burner as they prepared to evacuate.
“All the prized possessions, we’ve put them upstairs in a friend’s house and nearby, and we’ve got the car loaded,” Gonzalez said. “I think we’re ready.”
Damaging winds and flooding are expected across the entire peninsula as Ian moves north, reaching into Georgia, South Carolina and other parts of the southeastern US between Friday and Sunday, the NHC said.