HAVANA (AP) — Cubans returned from shelters to find flooded homes and washed-out roads Sunday, but no deaths were reported after a monstrous Hurricane Gustav roared across the island and into the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico.
Gustav hit the Isla de la Juventud south of the Cuban mainland just short of a top-scale Category 5 hurricane with screaming 140 mph (220 kph) winds that toppled telephone poles and fruit trees, shattered windows and leveled some homes.
Authorities evacuated 250,000 residents nationwide. In Pinar del Rio, the western tobacco-producing region, highways were blocked by fallen trees and downed power lines, and all public transportation ground to a halt.
Officials measured gusts of 212 mph (340 kph) in the western town of Paso Real del San Diego — a new national record for maximum wind speed in a country often hit by major hurricanes, said Miguel Angel Hernandez of the Cuban Institute of Meteorology.
A Cuban television reporter on the Isla de la Juventud said the storm had felt like “the blast wave from a bomb.”
“Buildings without windows, without doors,” he said. “Few trees remain standing.”
Cuban Civil defense chief Ana Isa Delgado said there were “many people injured” on the Isla de la Juventud, an island of 87,000 people whose name means Isle of Youth. Nearly all of its roads were washed out, and some regions were heavily flooded.
“It’s been very difficult here,” she said on state television.
Gustav earlier killed 84 people by triggering floods and landslides in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Jamaica’s Emergency Management office on Sunday raised Gustav’s death toll there to 10 from seven.
But in Cuba, none of the reported injuries were life-threatening.
The hurricane weakened slightly after crossing Cuba to a Category 3 status Sunday. But it still packed top winds near 115 mph (185 kph), and forecasters predicted it would increase to a Category 4 before making landfall Monday along the U.S. Gulf coast.
More than 1 million Americans made wary by Hurricane Katrina took buses, trains, planes and cars out of New Orleans and other coastal cities, where Katrina killed about 1,600 people in 2005.
At 2 p.m. EDT Sunday, the U.S. hurricane center said Gustav was centered about 270 miles (435 kilometers) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving northwest near 17 mph (28 kph).
In the Cuban fishing town of Batabano, 31 miles (50 kilometers) south of Havana, evacuees with children and dogs in tow returned to their pastel-colored, wooden homes to find many surrounded by knee-deep water.
“My house is full of water,” said Aldo Tomas, 43, pulling palm branches from his living room. “But we expected more. We expected worse.”
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Hanna weakened slightly as it swirled toward the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas on Sunday.
As it traveled over open waters, Hanna sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph).