By Anita Snow
HAVANA – Vast portions of Cuba were still without power and communications today after Hurricane Michelle swept across the island overnight, killing at least five people and flooding crops before moving on to strike the Bahamas.
The hurricane, which killed 12 people in Honduras, Nicaragua and Jamaica last week, lost some of its strength as it moved off Cuba, and it left Florida virtually untouched.
Michelle swept past the Bahamas capital of Nassau today with 85 mph winds, flooding houses and cutting power. At 4 p.m. EST, the storm was centered about 145 miles east-northeast of Nassau after approaching from the southwest.
When the storm made landfall in Cuba on Sunday, its winds were estimated at 130 mph.
The storm caused at least 23 homes to collapse in Havana, state television reported, saying that more were expected to crumble as they dried out in the sun. By today, the streets of the Cuban capital’s colonial district were littered with debris.
Reporters who toured rural parts of Matanzas and Villa Clara provinces east of Havana early today found hundreds homes damaged but only a few destroyed.
“We were rebuilding the house,” Jose Ramon Pedrozo said quietly as he tried to rescue a few wooden planks that once formed part of his modest home in Solis Viejo, a small town in hard-hit Matanzas. “Now we’re going to start all over.”
The narrow streets in Solis Viejo and other small towns in the central Cuban region were littered with palm branches and tiles blown off buildings. Downed utility poles lay scattered in parks and front yards.
Switched off by the government after Michelle hit Sunday afternoon, electricity remained shut down across the western half of the island. The 750,000 people who had been evacuated before the storm still had not been allowed to return home by early this afternoon.
Conditions in many parts of Cuba were unknown because communications were nearly completely knocked out, making it difficult even for the government to assess the damage.
Michelle created an 18-foot storm surge on the island of Cayo Largo off Cuba’s south coast Sunday, but there was no immediate word on damage there.
In a state television broadcast early this afternoon, Cuba’s National Defense confirmed five deaths.
Four people were killed in building collapses: a 32-year-old woman in Havana’s Arroyo Grande neighborhood; a 39-year-old man in the provincial capital of Matanzas; and a 33-year-old man and a 98-year-old woman in Jaguey Grande, in Matanzas province. A 60-year-old man drowned in Playa Larga on the coast in Matanzas, where Michelle made landfall.
Javier Godinez, a bartender at the historic Dos Hermanos tavern on Old Havana’s waterfront, said he and several others braved the storm inside the building, the wind lashing against the banging metal shutters.
Havana housewife Nimar Herrera Perez, 63, was sweeping water off a sidewalk in front of her home, whose walls are three feet thick.
“These walls are good and strong,” Herrera said. “You don’t feel anything inside.”
An elderly neighbor stopped by, complaining that Cubans’ daily bread ration had not arrived. “They gave out two rolls yesterday, because of the storm,” Herrera said.
By this morning the rain had stopped across most of Cuba, but there were reports of heavy downpours in the easternmost provinces of Santiago and Guantanamo, as Michelle moved northeast.
In the Bahamas, the hurricane unleashed stinging winds and sheets of rain early today. More than 12 inches drenched Nassau between 7 a.m. EST Sunday and 2 p.m. today, said Basil Dean of the Bahamas Meteorological Office.
“We have a car outside that is underwater,” said Jackie Albury, standing in knee-deep water in her house in Nassau, her pants rolled up and some boxes floating by. “We have taken everything up to the second story.”
A group of people were being evacuated from low-lying Cat Island, east of Nassau, the Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association said.
“I didn’t know it would be this bad,” said Mavis Turnquest, who drove to a hurricane shelter with blankets, food, and her Bible in her car. “I can only trust in God.”
Before moving on to the Bahamas, the hurricane’s outer winds brushed Florida, where a tropical storm warning was lifted this afternoon for the Atlantic coast from the Upper Keys to the West Palm Beach area.
Speaking Sunday night, Cuban President Fidel Castro said extensive damage to the communist island’s crops was likely.
The hurricane “surely has done damage to all agriculture – to sugarcane, to forests, to plantains,” Castro said. “It’s another blow … but it would have been worse if it had passed over the capital.”
Castro spoke with reporters after greeting Canadian and European tourists sleeping on sofas and mattresses in hotel lobbies in Varadero, Cuba’s major beach resort.
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