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Hurricane Ian leaves heavy damage in its wake in Cuba — and some political controversy

Ramon Espinosa
Fallen power lines, trees and metal rooftops block the streets in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, after Hurricane Ian struck the island's western provinces on Tuesday.

Hurricane Ian roared into western Cuba as a major, Category 3 storm early Tuesday morning — one of the strongest hurricanes to hit that part of Cuba in decades. The Cuban government is reporting two deaths from the storm.

Ian left heavy damage and flooding in its wake — as well as a bit of political controversy. WLRN's Christine DiMattei spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett about Ian’s aftermath in Cuba — and how it could affect the communist island.

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Here are excerpts from their conversation:

DIMATTEI: Tim, where and when did Hurricane Ian make landfall in Cuba — and just how powerful was it?

PADGETT: It made landfall very early Tuesday morning, squarely on the southern coast of Pinar del Río province in western Cuba. Isla de la Juventud and Artemisa province were also hit pretty hard.

The city of Pinar del Río is one of Cuba’s 10 largest cities, so there were a lot of people in this storm’s path. And that mattered because as you pointed out, Ian hit Cuba as a major hurricane — Category 3 — and it was packing winds of up to 125 miles an hour. Not to mention almost 20 inches of rain.

What do we know so far about the extent of the damage there?

As you mentioned, unfortunately two people were killed in Pinar del Río province — a woman in the town of San Luis and a man in Consolación, according to Cuban officials. And while initially more than a million people there were without power in that area, this morning we’re learning that later on the electrical grid for the rest of Cuba went down too, including Havana. As we know, large power outages are the norm in Cuba these days, so perhaps this isn't so surprising.

Roofs were blown off; social media’s full of photos of large trees lying across roads in Pinar del Río. And of course flooding. Storm surge was up to 14 feet. So we’re also seeing a lot of videos and photos of people there wading in water up to their waists inside their houses.

READ MORE: Cubans are bracing for Hurricane Ian — after Cayman Islands dodged catastrophe

And there’s one facet of that damage that could mean an especially bad economic blow to Cuba.

That’s right — and it’s called tobacco. Pinar del Río is Cuba’s most important tobacco-growing region. And that matters a lot because all those famous Cuban cigars? Well, tobacco is the island’s third largest export. Early reports indicate this hurricane destroyed many of Pinar del Río’s tobacco fields — including many in the celebrated Robaina plantation. In fact, the owner of that plantation called Hurricane Ian “apocalyptic.”

Cuba was already experiencing one of its worst economic crises before Hurricane Ian — which is a big reason we’re seeing record numbers of Cuban migrants at the U.S. border this year. This would just add to it.

Cuba was already experiencing one of its worst economic crises before Hurricane Ian — a big reason we’re seeing record numbers of Cuban migrants at the U.S. border. This could add to it.

We think of Cuba as one of those Caribbean islands that deals with strong hurricanes on a regular basis. But you point out that really hasn’t been the case with this part of Cuba?

I went back and looked at Cuba’s hurricane history. And you have to go back to 2004 to find the last time a hurricane of this strength hit western Cuba. That was Hurricane Charley — and what’s really interesting abut Charley is that it took pretty much the same path through the Caribbean and up to the Gulf coast of Florida that Ian is now taking this week.

Ramon Espinosa
Havana residents play dominoes during the island-wide blackout that followed Hurricane Ian's strike on western Cuban on Tuesday.

But before Charley in 2004, it looks like you have to go back 60 years to 1944 to find another major hurricane striking western Cuba. So it’s relatively rare for this part of Cuba.

And I understand Cuba’s communist regime was the target of hurricane preparedness complaints even before Ian hit the island?

Yeah, as if Cubans needed another reason to be bitter about their repressive government. Anyway, on Sunday the regime insisted on holding a national referendum on a new family law — which legalizes gay marriage — even though Cuban officials knew a Category 3 hurricane was going to hit the island the following night. The government supported that family law, so it wanted to win the referendum, and it did.

Now, to its credit the government did evacuate some 50,000 people in western Cuba before Hurricane Ian hit. But a lot of Cubans are accusing the government of compromising hurricane preparedness — which is usually pretty solid in Cuba — just so it could celebrate a political referendum victory. As I said, this could further tarnish the Cuban regime’s image — especially after that massive oil facility fire disaster in Matanzas, Cuba, last month.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.
Years ago, after racking her brains trying to find a fun, engaging, creative night gig to subsidize her acting habit, Chris decided to ride her commercial voiceover experience into the fast-paced world of radio broadcasting. She started out with traffic reporting, moved on to news -- and never looked back. Since then, Chris has worked in newsrooms throughout South Florida, producing stories for radio broadcasts and the web.