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Page last updated at 10:46 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 11:46 UK

Gustav's 'pure terror' for Cubans

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Man stands in ruins of home, Pinar del Rio, Cuba, 30 August 2008
There are no figures yet as to the cost of the damage from Hurricane Gustav

As the largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba knows all too well the destructive power of hurricanes.

In the western province of Pinar Del Rio, grandparents like to tell tales of the Great Hurricane of 1944.

Now there is a new legend in the making - Gustav.

Juan Fuentes is one of the thousands left homeless by Hurricane Gustav, his house flattened by the 240km/h (150mph) winds and surging seas.

"My God, this has been the most horrible thing that happened in my life," he said.

"I went through the hurricane of '44 and have never seen anything like this. It destroyed everything."

Hurricane rehearsals

Mr Fuentes lives in the coastal town of Los Palacios, which is where Hurricane Gustav first hit mainland Cuba.

In this one small town alone, 7,000 homes have had their roofs torn off, and the walls of many simply collapsed.

I shouted and I wept. It was pure terror for I don't know how long
Evangelina Torres,
hurricane survivor

Just a few kilometres down the road, in Paso Quemado, Evangelina Torres was huddling under the kitchen sink, hanging on to her husband for dear life, as the roof of her house was blown off.

"I shouted and I wept," she said. "It was pure terror for I don't know how long."

But miraculously the roof of her small kitchen remained intact and already she is planning how to move forward.

"We'll rebuild the roof from there... Little by little I'll save enough money. With government help, we can make it."

Before hitting the mainland, Gustav swept across Isla de la Juventud - the Isle of Youth - just off the southern coast of Cuba.

Today, it is a scene of devastation. Roads are flooded, homes, schools and factories severely damaged.

A transport ferry was lifted from its moorings and left on a street in the main town of Nueva Gerona.

Children play in a flooded canal in Havana, 1 September 2008
Powerful as it was, Hurricane Gustav reportedly caused no deaths in Cuba

A Cuban television reporter said Gustav's arrival felt like "the blast wave of a bomb".

In all, about 100,000 houses, schools and workplaces were damaged by the storm, with at least 6,000 homes considered beyond repair.

Much of the region is still without electricity, as electricity poles and pylons toppled like matchsticks.

One weather station in Pinar del Rio recorded gusts of 340km/h, a new record for this hurricane-swept island.

About 300 Cubans were killed in the Great Hurricane of 1944. This time some 19 people are reported injured but, so far, not a single person is known to have died.

The only communist state in the Americas, Cuba prides itself on having developed a world class disaster-preparedness organisation.

HURRICANE CATEGORIES
FIVE: Winds over 155mph (249km/h). Storm surge more than 18ft (5.4m) above normal. Only three such US landfall hurricanes - Labour Day 1935, Camille 1969 and Andrew 1992
FOUR: Winds 131-155mph. Storm surge 13-18ft
THREE: Winds 111-130mph. Storm surge 9-12ft. Katrina hit New Orleans as a three.
TWO: Winds 96-110mph. Storm surge 6-8ft
ONE: Winds 74-95mph. Storm surge 4-5ft
Source: Saffir-Simpson Scale/US National Hurricane Centre

Every year there are dress rehearsals before the hurricane season begins.

Each community knows in advance which building will be used as shelters, how to arrange transport, additional food and medical back up.

In Cuba when the authorities say it is time to evacuate, almost everyone does what they are told.

Compare this to somewhere like Haiti, where Gustav claimed more than 80 lives.

There, many often refuse to leave their homes for fear that they will be looted while they are gone.

In his younger days Fidel Castro used to take personal charge of overseeing the response to hurricanes.

Now his brother Raul Castro is president and has a very different style. There has been no public address to the nation.

Instead, state television has shown the president telephoning the regional civil defence teams both before and after Gustav struck.

It has been down to the string of vice-presidents to hit the road, reassuring people and overseeing recovery efforts in the Isle of Youth and across Pinar del Rio province.

But Raul Castro is known as an effective organiser, and government actions appear to have been as efficient as ever.

According to the Cuban authorities, some 467,000 people from across the entire island were evacuated, including 77% of the population of Pinar del Rio province and the Isle of Youth.

Restoring electricity appears to be one of the main priorities, with teams called in from all over the island.

State television also showed trucks arriving with corrugated roofing material.

Cigar costs

Fidel Castro continues to make his presence felt through regular newspaper editorials.

A satellite photo shows Gustav just off Cuba at 1055 GMT on 30 August
Gustav was a category four hurricane when it lashed Cuba on Saturday

In Monday morning's edition of the communist party newspaper Granma he praised the way everyone had responded to the disaster.

"It's lucky we had a revolution! It guarantees that nobody will be forgotten," Fidel wrote.

Once Gustav had moved out into the Gulf of Mexico en route to Louisiana, the emergency teams started to move in.

There are no figures yet as to the cost of the damage. Pinar del Rio is a mainly rural area with little industry apart from its famous tobacco fields.

The harvest was already in but the valuable leaves were being cured in flimsy thatched wooden sheds.

They were desperately trying to move half a million sacks of leaves to safer places before Gustav arrived.

But almost 1,000 tonnes of tobacco leaves still got soaked in the rain.

The price and availability of Cuban cigars could be another casualty of Hurricane Gustav.


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