With Wilma spinning off the nearby Mexican coast, the Cuban Civil Defense is in high gear — suspending school, shutting down seaside tourist resorts and executing evacuation plans for hundreds of thousands living in the storm's projected path.
Dr. José Rubiera, the island’s chief meteorologist, expects the Category 4 hurricane to cause major havoc in Cuba if it follows its predicted route from the Yucatan peninsula toward Florida.
“The pummeling will last for days,” predicts Rubiera. “We’ll first get hit as the storm heads to the Yucatan and then a second time when it turns northeast toward Florida.”
Flooding presents a major threat
Rubiera and other forecasters are not clear whether the hurricane will make landfall in Cuba. However, all projections show heavy rain bands battering the island's western side, bringing the prospect of flooding from both swollen rivers and storm surges.
In addition, the forecasted rain — some expect as much as two feet of water — would fall on areas already saturated and unable to absorb additional moisture.
Civil Defense authorities report that even without Wilma’s rain, reservoirs in the western province of Pinar del Rio are already at 93 percent capacity. Priority has been the evacuation of everyone living below the reservoirs.
As of Friday morning, government officials said nearly 400,000 people nationawide have been evacuated to safer ground.
According to Cuban authorities, 1.5 million people live in coastal areas susceptible to flooding. Close to a million people are reported to live in substandard housing that could collapse in a hurricane while another 45,000 live in zones susceptible to mud slides.
It’s a daunting task to move all these people out in a short span of time, but Cuba’s communist state has it down to a science. Run by a branch of the military, the Civil Defense department initiated Wilma preparations well in advance of the storm.
For the past 48 hours, state-run TV and radio began non-stop transmissions detailing Wilma’s path and issuing evacuation instructions.
At the same time, Civil Defense launched their neighborhood committees — groups of residents in every Cuban area assigned to keep track of evacuees and shelters. The committees pay special attention to senior citizens, the disabled and pregnant women.
Meanwhile, in the capital, Havana, which lies in the northwest of the island and is expected to feel severe effects from the storm, a few stores are being boarded up and people are topping off their tanks. But with few hurricane supplies available, most people are just trying to get out of Wilma’s path.
“It’s the only thing we can do,” said Norma Valdez, a single mother of two who has been evacuated from her Havana apartment during the last six hurricanes.
Valdez and her neighbors are being bused to a neighborhood school with a roof strong enough to withstand Wilma’s battering.
Tourists from beach resorts and Pinar del Rio’s famed diving centers are pouring into Havana hotels to take shelter from Wilma.
Outside the capital, the government is running shelters in some 50 boarding schools, each capable of housing several thousand evacuees.
Battering has begun
As western Cuba prepares for the worst, the eastern end of the island has already felt Wilma's force. About 9,000 people were evacuated earlier in the week before wind and rain collapsed some one thousand homes.
Rivers and reservoirs in central Cuba also flooded, cutting off the main highway to Santiago de Cuba, the island's second-largest city. Meanwhile, a fishing village in Granma province is completely submerged in water and three mountain communities in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra Mountains were hit hard by mud slides.
The storm has already damaged Cuba’s feeble electric grid, which struggles to maintain power even under optimal conditions, and Monday’s rain flooded a major thermoelectric plant in Santiago de Cuba, knocking out lights across the island.