- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba — Hurricane Ivan whipped western Cuba with 160 mph winds, ripping the roofs off tobacco barns and houses and drenching fields before moving into the Gulf of Mexico yesterday, threatening offshore oil rigs and setting off an exodus along the U.S. coast.

One of the fiercest storms ever recorded in the region, Ivan cut a deadly swath through Grenada, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, killing at least 68 persons.

In Mexico, hundreds of people abandoned fishing settlements on the Yucatan Peninsula and the resort city of Cancun opened shelters and closed beaches. Cozumel island, a dive resort known for its lumbering sea turtles, shut its airport and halted cruise ship arrivals.

Ivan gave Cuba a taste of its monstrous power Monday evening, with the wall of the storm’s eye brushing over the island’s sparsely populated western tip — the heartland of Cuba’s famed cigar industry.

A reporter who drove through the rural region yesterday found roads submerged in water, tobacco fields drenched and power lines downed. Hardly a person was in sight in the evacuated area.

No deaths or injuries were reported.

“We are so relieved,” said Miguel Rivero, a 42-year-old restaurant worker in Havana, about 100 miles to the northeast. “If it had come through here, it would have been a true disaster.”

Moraima Santos, a 60-year-old Havana housewife, was terrified when early projections showed Ivan heading much closer to the capital of 2.2 million.

“We are so happy that the monster has left,” she said yesterday.

In the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio, residents were surprised to see damage that appeared minimal.

“We are so happy that hardly anything happened here,” Zoraida Marrero, a 37-year-old shopkeeper, said as she walked with her family back to their rural home.

On the southwest coast, Ivan’s monstrous waves erased the beach along the tiny fishing village of Playa Las Canas.

Roofs were torn from some wooden homes and knee-high water filled structures closest to the sea, buildings that remained abandoned yesterday morning. Farther inland, winds collapsed some tobacco-curing houses and flattened a grove of banana trees.

About 1.3 million of Cuba’s 11.3 million people were evacuated from the western region still recovering from Hurricane Charley. All national and international airports were closed until today.

Whatever the damage, Cuban President Fidel Castro said he would not accept any aid from the United States.

“We won’t accept a penny from them,” Mr. Castro said yesterday on state television.

“The hurricane before this they offered $50,000,” he said of a U.S. government offer after Charley hit. “Even if they offered all that was necessary — $100 million, $200 million — we would not accept.”

Cuba’s tobacco crop was safe, top grower Alejandro Robaina said. Planting season does not begin until next month and remnants of January’s harvest are protected in curing houses.

As of yesterday afternoon, Ivan had killed at least 15 persons in Jamaica, 39 in Grenada, five in Venezuela, one in Tobago, one in Barbados, four in the Dominican Republic and three in Haiti.

In Jamaica, which Ivan battered Saturday, helicopters flew food and other essential supplies into areas still cut off by blocked roads, including some of the shelters — filled with more than 15,000 people — which were running short of food Monday.

Most of the island was still without power yesterday.

In Grand Cayman, the storm flung huge pleasure yachts up on land and toppled trees three stories high. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed.

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