CAMAGUEY, Cuba – Hurricane Paloma hit Cuba as an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm as darkness fell Saturday, striking the southern shore with winds of 145 mph, then carved its way over the island in the night.
Forecasters predicted a “potentially catastrophic” storm surge and battering waves up to 25 feet tall. They warned that as much as 20 inches of rain could bring life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.
This morning they’ll know.
Paloma delivered a direct hit on a country still reeling from the devastating impact of back-to-back storms in late August and early September.
Roofs remain off houses. Food is in short supply. Electric power was restored just this week to parts of this province where Paloma came ashore. It went out again minutes after 8 p.m.
“Paloma will finish us off,” Irene Requejo said.
Those who could prepared. Those who couldn’t fled. And, as the most powerful storm to strike the region in 60 years bore down on them Saturday, a steady stream of worshippers paused at the San Jose Church to pray.
“They come to pray for mercy,” said church worker Caridad Mireya Hernandez, 65. “They want an end to the suffering and destruction.”
In Camaguey, some 71,000 people were evacuated, 65,000 of them to the homes of relatives and neighbors. More than 30 evacuation centers were prepared to receive thousands more. Some 5,000 residents and tourists were evacuated from the coastal town of Santa Cruz del Sur, where Paloma eventually made landfall at about 6 p.m.
As it did, heavy winds and rain pounded the grounds of the University of Camaguey, where hundreds of evacuated men, women and children ran for cover outside a government shelter.
They carried plastic bags stuffed with belongings and small mats soaked in the downpour. They appeared to be running for their lives.
“For now, at least we know we’re safe,” said Laritza Olivera, 32, who shared a small room at a shelter with seven relatives. “But we don’t know what awaits us on our return home.”
Camaguey was particularly hard-hit by Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Hurricane Ike severely damaged the electrical and telephone systems. Parts remained underwater from surging seas and overflowing rivers for days after the storm.
So they didn’t hesitate as Paloma approached.
Families living on the banks of the Jatibonico River scrambled to move their belongings out of ramshackle homes.