BY ANDREA RODRIGUEZ
HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Ian knocked out power across Cuba and devastated some of the country’s largest tobacco plantations when it slammed into the island’s western tip as a major hurricane on Tuesday.
Cuba’s Electric Union said in a statement that work is underway to gradually restore service to the country’s 11 million residents overnight. Electricity was first cut off to around 1 million people in the western provinces of Cuba, but later the entire grid collapsed.
Ian hit a Cuba that is struggling with an economic crisis and has faced frequent power cuts in recent months. It made landfall as a Category 3 storm on the western end of the island, devastating Pinar del Río province, where much of the tobacco used for Cuba’s signature cigars is grown.
Tens of thousands of people were evacuated and others fled the area before Ian arrived, causing flooding, damaging homes and toppling trees. Authorities were still assessing the damage, although no fatalities were reported Tuesday evening.
Ian’s winds damaged one of Cuba’s largest tobacco farms in La Robaina.
“It was apocalyptic, a real disaster,” said Hirochi Robaina, owner of the farm that bears his name and that his grandfather made known internationally.
Robaina, who also owns cigar producer Finca Robaina, posted photos on social media of broken wooden and thatched roofs on the ground, greenhouses in rubble and overturned wagons.
State media said Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited the affected region.
The Meteorological Institute of Cuba said the town of Pinar del Río was in the heart of the hurricane for an hour and a half.
“Being in the hurricane was terrible for me, but here we are alive,” said Pinar del Rio resident Yusimí Palacios, who asked authorities for a roof and a mattress.
Authorities had set up 55 shelters and taken measures to protect crops, especially tobacco.
The US National Hurricane Center said Cuba experienced “significant wind and storm surge impacts” when the hurricane struck with sustained winds of 125 mph (205 km/h).
Ian was expected to get even stronger over the warm Gulf of Mexico, reaching peak winds of 130 mph (209 km/h) as it approaches the southwest coast of Florida, where 2.5 million people have been ordered to evacuate.
As the center of the storm moved into the Gulf, scenes of destruction emerged in Cuba. Authorities were still assessing the damage in its world famous tobacco belt.
Local government station TelePinar reported heavy damage to the main hospital in the city of Pinar del Rio, tweeting pictures of collapsed ceilings and downed trees. No deaths have been reported.
Videos on social media showed downed power lines and severed roads in the provinces of Pinar del Rio, Artemisa and Mayabeque. A hospital in Pinar del Río was damaged.
“The town is flooded,” said farmer Andy Muñoz, 37, who lives in Playa Cajío in Artemisa.
He said many people had lost their belongings due to the storm surge.
“I got through the hurricane at home with my husband and the dog. The masonry and zinc roof of the house had just been laid. But the storm destroyed it,” said Mercedes Valdés, who lives along the highway from Pinar del Río to San Juan y Martínez. “We couldn’t get our things back…we just ran away.”
AP journalist Osvaldo Angulo in Pinar del Rio contributed to this report.