Thousands of homes destroyed, damaged in Cuba by Hurricane Michelle, government says

Tuesday, November 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) _ Hurricane Michelle destroyed at least 2,000 homes and damaged another 8,000 in central Cuba, officials said Tuesday as they began totaling the damage from the weekend storm that killed five people nationwide.

Half of Cuba was blacked out for a second night, and millions of residents remained without power, gas or water. The government was working to rebuild the telecommunications network.

Civil defense officials said the first tallies of destroyed homes came from Matanzas province, which was worst hit by Sunday's storm.

``We were rebuilding the house,'' Jose Ramon Pedrozo said quietly as he tried to rescue a few wooden planks that once formed part of his modest home in Solis Viejo, a small town in Matanzas. ``Now we're going to start all over.''

The hurricane, which killed 12 people in Honduras, Nicaragua and Jamaica last week, lost some strength as it moved off Cuba, and it left Florida virtually untouched. Authorities had ordered the Florida Keys evacuated.

Michelle swept past the Bahamas capital of Nassau on Monday with 85 mph winds, flooding houses and cutting power. At 10 a.m. EST, the storm was centered about 400 miles southwest of Bermuda and was barely a hurricane with winds of 74 mph.

In Cuba, damages to telephone lines and microwave antennae that provide national long-distance service snarled communications between Havana and outlying regions.

Outgoing international telephone service was restored before dawn Monday, but callers outside the country reported they were unable to call loved ones on the island.

``I'm very worried because we don't know what happened to them,'' Isabel Nunez, 55, of Elizabeth, N.J., said of her relatives in Cuba.

Although the power was shut off to prevent accidents during the storm, the government said extensive repairs must be made before it can be safely restored.

When the storm made landfall on Cuba's southern coast, its winds were estimated at 130 mph. Michelle caused at least 23 homes to collapse in Havana, on the northern shore, state television reported _ and more were expected to crumble as they dried out in the sun.

The narrow streets in Solis Viejo and other towns in the central Cuban region were littered with palm branches and tiles blown off buildings. Downed utility poles lay scattered in parks and front yards.

Officials evacuated about 750,000 people before the storm. Cuba's population is 11 million, with 2 million in Havana.

Conditions in many parts of Cuba were unknown because of the communications problems, making it difficult even for the government to assess the damage.

Cuba's National Defense said four people were killed in separate building collapses in Havana and Matanzas province. One man drowned in Playa Larga on the coast in Matanzas, where Michelle made landfall.

President Fidel Castro toured several affected regions Monday and stopped at the home of Elian Gonzalez, the boy at the center of a highly politicized child custody battle last year involving the United States.

Castro greeted the Gonzalez family at their home in Cardenas, in Matanzas province. Like many other Cuban homes, it was without electricity and other basic services.

As he toured other parts of Matanzas province and Villa Clara province to the east, Castro reiterated fears that the storm had damaged key crops including coffee plants, citrus trees and sugarcane.

In the Bahamas, the hurricane unleashed stinging winds and sheets of rain on Monday, ripping roofs off several wooden houses and tearing down traffic lights.

Government offices, banks and public schools remained closed for a second day Tuesday. Emergency crews were working to restore power and telephone service in areas where the hurricane brought down power lines.

The radio tower of the station MORE FM was snapped in half by the winds, and several other broadcasters were out of commission.

Nassau International Airport remained closed, pending inspection of the runway and the assessment of damage. Some small planes were tossed across the tarmac.

Before moving to the Bahamas, the hurricane's outer winds brushed Florida, where a tropical storm warning was lifted Monday afternoon for the Atlantic coast from the Upper Keys to the West Palm Beach area.

In the Cayman Islands, several businesses in the capital, George Town, were damaged, including a waterfront jewelry store that lost some of its display window jewelry to the sea, police said. Officials were still estimating damage.