Tropical Storm Laura batters Cuba as other Caribbean nations assess damage

Miami Herald

Cuba has been spared the worst of Tropical Storm Laura, which was battering most of the island Monday with heavy rains and coastal swells in low-lying areas without causing the kind of catastrophic damage seen in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Laura made landfall near Santiago de Cuba on Sunday night, and was still moving along the island’s southern coast on Monday.

At 2 p.m., its center was 15 miles off Cayo Largo del Sur, south of Matanzas. The storm has sustained winds of 60 miles per hour and could intensify as it moves over the warm waters off the Cuban coast, according to forecasts by the Cuban Institute of Meteorology.

The National Civil Defense issued a “cyclonic alarm” advisory for all the eastern and central provinces, except Camaguey. As of Monday afternoon, no deaths or significant damage were reported.

As the storm left the eastern side of the island during the morning, the local press reported power outages and many fallen trees. In Santiago de Cuba, there were interruptions in the telephone service that began Sunday night. According to the official newspaper Granma, preliminary reports in Guantanamo show damages to banana crops and the roofs of houses and state institutions.

According to Radio Bayamo, firefighters also extinguished two large fires at a school and a poultry farm in Santiago de Cuba.

Some rural communities in the mountains of Granma province have been cut off due to river flooding, local newspaper La Demajagua reported. Images from the coastal city of Baracoa, in Holguin, show the storm’s waves spilling over the city’s seawall and beyond on Sunday.

After hopes that Laura would weaken after passing through the mountainous Hispaniola faded, the government rushed evacuations in coastal cities and near rivers. Nine thousand people were evacuated in Cauto Cristo, a community in the eastern province of Granma near the Cauto, Cuba’s longest river. Another 400 people were evacuated in the coastal city of Santa Cruz del Sur in Camaguey. In Villa Clara, in the center of the country, the government organized the evacuation of about 45,000 people. In all cases, most took shelter in the homes of family members and neighbors.

By the end of the morning, heavy rains were pouring over the island’s central region.

“About an hour ago it started to rain very hard, and the wind increased. Right now, we are all locked in the house,” said Fidel Prieto from Trinidad, a city in central Cuba.

Residents of the city of Ciego de Avila, also in central Cuba, woke up Monday without water service due to a power outage. According to local press reports, coastal flooding began in the afternoon in Trinidad’s vicinity and the southern coast of Ciego de Avila province. But authorities in Camaguey and Ciego de Avila said the storm’s damage does not appear to be significant.

Other Caribbean countries, in contrast, are still assessing the damages and cleaning up the wreckage left in the wake of the storm.

In Haiti, Laura left at least 17 people dead and a 10-month baby was among five missing. The child and his mother, a local pediatrician, were reportedly washed away by flash floods when their Toyota RAV4 got stuck in the mud in Tabarre, a city in the capital.

The storm flooded homes, carved roads in half and caused landslides that peeled off mountains. In some communities, relatives were searching through debris and rubble Monday for missing loved ones, while disaster officials said they were awaiting reports from the provinces.

Jerry Chandler, the head of Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection, said the hydroelectric dam Peligre that was in danger of bursting after the water in the river rose, appeared to be in good shape. The rising water, he said, was gradually released.

In the Dominican Republic, where the storm caused four deaths, many communities remained isolated Monday due to power outages and impassable roads. Fifty-six communities remain incommunicado. More than 700,000 people are still suffering from power outages and more than 1.5 million from interruptions in water service.

The director of the Center for Emergency Operations, Juan Manuel Mendez, asked the population to “not let their guard down” because the rain will continue throughout the day.

President-elect Luis Abinader visited the province of Pedernales, an area along the Haiti-Dominican border that was hit especially hard by flooding, and again promised help for communities located in areas vulnerable to damage by storms.

“These people living in high-risk zones are going to be relocated, and the government is going to provide another place because we need to find a long-term solution,” Abinader said.

In Puerto Rico, the storm’s effects on the island’s already-battered agriculture was of great worry to farmers.

Jose Araus, who manages multiple plantain and eggplant crops in the municipality of Salinas, said Laura caused losses of 75 to 100% in Salinas’ agricultural zone.

Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector has been recovering since Hurricane Maria, which wiped out 100% of coffee and plantain crops on the island. The September 2017 storm caused more than $2 billion in damages and killed around 5,000 cattle on the island. Tropical storm Isaias, in late July, caused crop damages of $47.5 million across the island, according to the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture.

Laura’s impact on food production and availability is also a primary concern in Cuba, where severe shortages of food have become part of everyday life.

“There is hardly anything to buy at stores. Everything is empty,” said Ofelia Lara from Cienfuegos.

Lara, 69, said she fears for what will come in the coming weeks.

“Before the cyclone, we didn’t have rice or beans … I had to spend my entire government pension to buy five pounds of meat, and you can’t even find squash in the market,” she said. “Can you imagine what will happen when the rains and the wind destroy what little there is?”