Powerful Paloma roars ashore in Cuba

November 9, 2008 5:12:40 PM PST
Hurricane Paloma leveled hundreds of homes along Cuba's southern coast before rapidly losing power over land Sunday, weakening from a dangerous Category 4 storm to a tropical depression in less than a day. Crashing surf and a powerful sea surge sent waves almost a mile (1½ kilometers) inland as the storm ravaged Santa Cruz del Sur, the coastal community where it roared ashore Saturday night. Javier Ramos said he rebuilt his simple wood-frame house in Santa Cruz del Sur after Hurricane Ike struck in early September, only to watch Paloma flatten it again.

"At least we're alive, but my wife hasn't seen this yet," Ramos told The Associated Press as he scavenged bits of clothing and smashed dishes in his front yard. "I don't know how she's going to react. It's going to be terrible."

Authorities said the late-season storm toppled a major communications tower, interrupted electricity and phone service, but no storm-related deaths were reported.

Cuba had feared that Paloma could cripple its recovery from Gustav and Ike, hurricanes that struck this summer, causing about $9.4 billion in damage and destroying nearly a third of the island's crops. But Vicente de la O of Cuba's national power company said damage to the power grid was far less than that caused by the previous two hurricanes.

Paloma was a Category 4 hurricane when it hit Santa Cruz del Sur, but quickly lost strength. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami reported that by Sunday morning, the Cuban and Bahamian governments had discontinued all warnings associated with it.

By nightfall, Paloma's center was 15 miles (25 kilometers) south-southwest of the colonial city of Camaguey.

Once as strong as 145 mph (230 kph), the storm's winds had weakened to 35 mph (55 kph). Paloma was drifting toward the north at about 1 mph (2 kph). The hurricane center's forecast said the storm or its remnants should be near the north coast of Cuba on Monday.

That was a far cry from the hurricane that brought waves of more than 10 feet (3 meters) high, which washed away nearly all traces of about 50 modest houses along the coast of Santa Cruz del Sur. Civil Defense authorities said altogether 435 homes in the community were destroyed.

Angel Betancourt was skinning a drowned goat at his home in Santa Cruz del Sur.

"The water was up to a meter high and the goat drowned," he said. "What else can we do? We're going to eat it."

Yulaidi Alcala, a 22-year-old office worker, lost everything except the clothes she was wearing and a pair of light bulbs she salvaged from the ruins of her home.

"The pain is so great, I've cried so much," she said. "I've lost everything. Everything."

Touring the area, Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura said Santa Cruz del Sur was among the hardest-hit nationwide.

Cuba balked at U.S. offers of humanitarian aid after Gustav and Ike and Machado Ventura said the country would take the same position if Washington pledged more help after Paloma.

Fidel Castro wrote in an essay that crops planted to replenish the island's dwindling food supply after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav would likely be destroyed by Paloma, noting "many crops that were expected soon, countless hours of human sacrifice, gasoline, seeds, fertilizer, herbicides and the work of labor teams to produce food urgently, will be lost anew."

In areas near Santa Cruz del Sur, flooding submerged homes up to their flimsy metal roofs and washed out banana crops and other farmland, though there were no official estimates on the immediate effects to the national food reserves.

Across central and eastern Cuba, 1.2 million people were evacuated. About one-fifth of those were taken to shelters in schools and government buildings, but most spent the night with neighbors or relatives whose homes authorities deemed more able to withstand the hurricane. Cuba regularly moves people en masse to higher ground before tropical storms and hurricanes, preventing major loss of life.


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