Cuba orders evacuation of 50,000 people in western province ahead of Hurricane Ian

Ramon Espinosa/AP

Cuban authorities ordered the evacuation of 50,000 people in Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province on the island, which is expected to be hit by Hurricane Ian with heavy rains and winds above 100 mph late Monday and early Tuesday.

Ian continues to strengthen and could reach the island as a Category 3 hurricane and could cause “significant wind and storm surge impacts,” the National Hurricane Center said. The Center advisory warned of “destructive winds” along Ian’s core path across western Cuba.

At 11:00 p.m., Ian’s center was located 105 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba.

The Cuban Meteorological Institute said Ian would likely make landfall somewhere between La Colina and San Juan Martínez, in Pinar del Río province, around 5 a.m. Tuesday. Cuban forecasters warned that the hurricane covers an extensive area of more than 310 miles, so its effects could be felt in other provinces.

The island’s main international airport, José Martí in Havana, ceased operations on Monday at 10 p.m. until 12:01 a.m Wednesday, Cuban authorities announced. Several flights, including those by American Airlines and Southwest, have already being canceled ahead of the storm. The airport operator, state company ECASA, advised affected passengers to contact the airlines directly.

Since noon, residents were already seeing the impact of the rains and wind on the Isle of Youth, on Cuba’s southwestern coast. The ferry between Gerona, the Isle of Youth’s main city, and Batabanó, a town in the Mayabeque province, was suspended as the hurricane could cause waves as high as 23 feet.

On Monday, Cubans in Pinar del Río, the Isle of Youth and Havana, all under a hurricane warning, were rushing preparations with the few resources they had to protect buildings and belongings.

The supplies Floridians usually get to prepare for a storm are unavailable to most Cubans. That long list includes shutters, water bottles, sandbags, rechargeable lamps, batteries, and even candles. Food shortages add another layer of complexity to storm preparedness efforts on the island.

If Ian becomes a major hurricane it could have a devastating effect on Cuba’s battered economy, which faces an energy crisis causing lengthy and constant blackouts.

In Pinar del Río, the local civil defense council ordered the evacuation of 50,000 people, of which 6,000 will be given shelter in schools and other state buildings, though the majority are expected to stay with friends and family. Authorities also rushed to protect the tobacco harvest, one of the most lucrative economic activities in the province.

Public transportation was suspended at noon and all transit was banned after 7 p.m.

In Havana, which could also get torrential rains and hurricane-force winds, authorities were focused on collecting debris, the local defense council said. Residents of the impoverished neighborhood El Fanguito, near the Almendares river, were ordered to evacuate because of the risk of flooding.

Residents of low coastal areas in the province of Artemisa have also been evacuated, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported.

Many state institutions allowed employees to leave as early as 2 p.m. to give them time to get home and prepare. The government said Monday night that work in Havana would be suspended on Tuesday with few exceptions that include first responders and food industry workers. Public transportation services in the capital will also be suspended.

The last major hurricane to affect Cuba was Irma, which hit the island in 2017 as a Category 5 and left 10 dead.