- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2005

HAVANA — Military divers used inflatable rafts to rescue nearly 250 people from flooded homes yesterday, after Hurricane Wilma drove the ocean over Havana’s sea wall and gushed water into coastal neighborhoods of aging buildings.

The seaside Malecon highway was inundated as swirling brown waters spread up to four blocks inland, submerging cars and leaving only the bright blue tops of phone booths peeking out. Waves lapped at the front door of the Foreign Ministry as young men in wooden boats rowed nearby.

There were no immediate reports of casualties on the island yesterday, although tornados spun off by the storm over the weekend injured six persons in rural areas. Nearly 700,000 people were evacuated across Cuba’s west in recent days as Wilma approached, the government said.

While Havana’s coastal road and adjacent neighborhoods often flood during storms, the extent of flooding yesterday was highly unusual.

“We’re amazed,” resident Laura Gonzalez-Cueto said as she watched military divers in wet suits, masks and fins escorting small groups of people in the black inflatable rafts with outboard motors. Once they reached higher areas with less water, those rescued were taken away for medical attention.

Miss Gonzalez-Cueto said a major road four blocks from the coast is under more than 3 feet of water.

At least 244 persons, including some children, were rescued during the morning, municipal official Mayra Lassale said.

Dozens of people braved wind and rain to watch mammoth waves crash over the Malecon sea wall.

“The ocean is furious, as if it wants to take back the land,” said Rodrigo Cubal, 42, standing with his family.

Throughout the capital, trees fell and branches and other debris were scattered across streets and highways.

The outer bands of Wilma flooded evacuated communities along Cuba’s southern coast over the weekend while the hurricane clobbered Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The storm passed to Cuba’s north yesterday on its way to landfall in southern Florida.

Flooding and high winds caused heavy damage to houses in the northern coastal community of Baracoa, just east of Havana.

In Mariel, a port east of Havana, people stood outside their homes watching as huge waves rolled in one after another. “I’ve never seen waves like this,” said 30-year-old Joelsis Calderin.

The government shut off electricity throughout Havana and the island’s western region before dawn in a standard safety precaution. Power remained out in most of the capital at midafternoon.

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