Hurricane Ian began pounding Cuba with strong winds, rain, and rain, according to Reuters

By Dave Sherwood and Mario Fuentes

BATABANO, Cuba (Reuters) – The first strong winds ahead of Hurricane Ian began pounding Cuba’s southern coast late on Monday as authorities issued life-threatening storm warnings for residents to evacuate, protect boats and batter homes.

The fast-growing storm is centered about 155 miles (250 km) southeast of Cabo San Antonio, Cuba, and has intensified in recent hours with maximum sustained winds of 100 miles per hour (155 km/h). It is a Category 2 hurricane on a five-point scale.

“Destructive wind damage is possible as Ian’s core moves across western Cuba,” the center said.

The storm is forecast to be a Category 3 storm or stronger and barrel north toward the Florida coast, with residents stocking up on supplies and filling sandbags.

Residents of Batabano, on Cuba’s southern coast, made do with less resources than Florida when the storm moved in, threatening the fishing village of wooden and concrete blockhouses just steps from the raging sea.

“We’re saving lives here, going door-to-door evacuating the elderly and children,” said local official Suleika Roche, 43, as we boarded a bus transporting residents to higher ground.

The storm is set to plow north across the island as it enters the Gulf of Mexico, but forecasts put its path well west of the Cuban capital, Havana, where a direct hit could cause devastating damage to the city’s ancient infrastructure.

Cuba is already in the throes of an economic crisis that has resulted in long lines of food, fuel and medicine, as well as regular power outages across the country. Most grocery store shelves have been empty for months, complicating preparations for the storm.

“I’m buying bread now because I can’t leave my house later,” said Guillermo Gómez, 79, of Havana, as he waited in a line that stretched several blocks for a loaf of bread. “The water will be up to my knees.”

Some residents boarded windows on the capital’s waterfront Malecon Boulevard. Others, without boards, taped them to prevent breakage, while others simply removed the glass entirely.

Juan Ruiz, who runs a coffee shop overlooking the Florida coast, said his business had spent the night before unpacking its merchandise and supplies, choosing to work rather than fight the sea.

“We’ve been preparing since Saturday,” he said as the wind began to whip up layers of white on the water. “The sea always breaks here.”

The Cuban government suspended train and bus travel in the western half of the island ahead of the storm. Officials are monitoring aging dams, many of which were close to capacity before the storm.

Florida Bound

The storm looks set to cut off the tobacco-growing state of Pinar del Rio.

Officials in Pinar del Rio said they would evacuate 24,000 people from the state ahead of the storm.

Fertilizer, charcoal and farm animals have been moved to protected areas, officials said, and infrastructure for the region’s tobacco industry has been preserved.

After Ian leaves western Cuba, the storm could make landfall north of Tampa Bay early Friday or turn northwest toward the Florida Panhandle, forecasters said.

The Biden administration on Monday declared a public health emergency for the state and said it was working with local officials to provide support.

Cuba and Florida have seen wetter, windier and more intense hurricanes in recent years, which some experts attribute to climate change.

There is also evidence that climate change is causing storms to move slower and dump more water in one place.

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