With seven Cuban provinces elevated to the alarm phase, Cubans completed last-minute storm preparations Thursday as high winds began to send waves crashing into north coast beaches.
Irma’s current path keeps the massive storm offshore and it’s not expected to make landfall on the island. But Irma could still could churn up storm surges and waves reaching as high as 13 to 20 feet, causing flooding in low-lying ares, said Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology..
A tropical storm warning was in effect Thursday for seven Cuban provinces and a hurricane watch remained in effort from Matanzas in central Cuba all the way to the easternmost province of Guantánamo as Hurricane Irma churned westward but began a northern curve away from the island.
With that curve, Cuba was expected to escape the brunt of Irma’s 175 mph sustained winds but storm shelters are already open in Cuba’s eastern provinces and evacuations are underway.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the provinces of Guantánamo, Holguín, Las Tunas, Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus and Villa Clara were under a tropical storm warning with Irma expected to have the most impact along Cuba’s north coast.
Cuba’s National Civil Defense Council elevated its action plan for Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Holguín, Las Tunas, Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila provinces to an alarm phase, and Sancti Spíritus, Cienfuegos, Villa Clara and Matanzas provinces were on alert.
WPLG Local 10 News, which has a reporter on the ground in Villa Clara province, reported that classes had been suspended and evacuations had started. In Caibarién, a Villa Clara city known for its sandy beaches, many residents were using bici-taxis to take prized possessions inland as Irma approached. Caibarién was the only municipality in Villa Clara on an alarm phase.
Granma, the newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, reported that civil defense councils began preparing evacuation shelters and laying in stocks of food and drinking water on Wednesday. Las Tunas province swung into action by beginning production of four tons of crackers and transporting sugar stocks at the province’s port to safer locations.
According to carefully drawn up preparedness plans, Cubans took on garbage collection duties, cleaned out sewers and drainage systems, and made sure that water tanks elevated on roofs were secure.
The National Hurricane Center said hurricane conditions are possible from Matanzas all the way to the tip of Cuba and could begin in the watch area by Friday. By Saturday, Irma is expected to dump four to 10 inches of rainfall on eastern and central Cuba with isolated downpours of up to 15 inches.
The U.S. State Department warned American travelers Wednesday that they should begin leaving the island.
American Airlines has waived change fees for trips to the six cities it serves in Cuba — Cienfuegos, Camagüey, Havana, Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero for passengers who bought their tickets by Monday and were scheduled to travel from Monday to Sept. 12. American won’t charge a change fee if passengers can rebook their flights to the same cities through Sept. 15.
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