SANTA CRUZ DEL SUR, Cuba — Thousands of Cubans returned to homes demolished by Hurricane Paloma even as the once-powerful storm dissipated off the coast on Monday.
The hurricane washed out fishing villages, ripped the roofs off factories and ravaged roads, but the government reported that no one was killed.
Coastal Santa Cruz del Sur took a direct hit when Paloma struck as a Category 4 hurricane Saturday night. Ten-foot-high waves carried away wooden houses, leaving a tangled mess of smashed furniture and strewn belongings bobbing in the surf.
"Everything is gone! Oh, my God!" gasped Xiomara Rivero, a 66-year-old retiree who burst into tears upon returning to her home. The single remaining wall was covered with seaweed. All around lay the ruined remains of her belongings, a table split in two, smashed chairs, a water-logged mattresses.
Storm not expected to regain force
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the remains of Paloma were hanging off the north coast of central Cuba on Monday, and that the storm was not expected to regain force.
State media reported that in Camaguey province, which includes Santa Cruz del Sur, nearly 200,000 people had been evacuated to shelters or waited out the storm with neighbors or relatives. All but 59,000 had headed home by Monday morning. For some, however, there wasn't much to return to.
Juan Ramon Nunez lost everything but parts of the floor of his home. He pulled a hammer from the wreckage and held it up. "Look, this is what we saved," he said sarcastically.
"I live here with my wife, my son and my mother," Nunez added. "My mother has had two heart attacks, so we will have to prepare her well before bringing her here."
Cuba already is struggling to recover from major Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which roared through the island barely a week apart in late August and early September. They caused about $9.4 billion in damage, smashing nearly half a million homes and destroying almost a third of the island's crops.
Javier Ramos said he rebuilt his simple wood-frame house in Santa Cruz del Sur after Ike struck, only to watch Paloma flatten it again.
"My wife hasn't seen this yet," he said Sunday afternoon, 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."
Some homes submerged
Outside Santa Cruz del Sur, some homes were submerged up to their flimsy metal roofs. Banana crops and other farmland was washed out, though there were no official estimates on the loss to the island's dwindling food stocks.
Cuba balked at U.S. offers of aid after Gustav and Ike and Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura said the country would take the same position if Washington pledged more help after Paloma.
"Our problem is the blockade," said Machado Ventura, referring to the U.S. trade embargo, which has been in place since 1962.
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