Cubans pick up pieces amid Gustav destruction

PASO QUEMADO, Cuba Sun Aug 31, 2008 6:53pm EDT

1 of 11. People clean up debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in Paso Real de San Diego, Cuba, August 31, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Claudia Daut

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PASO QUEMADO, Cuba (Reuters) - Her pigs and some government help will be her salvation, Evangelina Torres said on Sunday as she looked up from her living room at the open sky that is her new roof.

The day before, she and her family had huddled under the kitchen sink for survival while Hurricane Gustav blew through western Cuba with 150 mile per hour winds and shredded her rustic home.

The roof went first, then the ferocious wind and rain whipped through for hours, leaving everything in a state of wet chaos.

"I shouted and I wept," she said, describing her reactions while hanging on to her husband for dear life. "It was pure terror for I don't know how long."

Miraculously, only the roof over her small kitchen remained in place, and that would be the starting point for recovering her pre-storm life.

"We'll rebuild the roof from there. I sell pigs and little by little, I'll save enough money from them to replace it. With a little government help, we can make it," said Torres, 58.

Her tale of terror and damage was shared by thousands of people in the path of Gustav, which left a panorama of destruction after it ripped through the western province of Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth 40 miles out in the Caribbean Sea.

Hurricane Gustav was on its way on Sunday toward New Orleans, weaker than when it swept over communist Cuba but still expected to deliver a nasty blow to the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina just three years ago.

In Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, 86 people were killed as Gustav passed through the Caribbean, but in Cuba, where evacuations are organized, early and enforced, no deaths had been reported.

Along the coast, a storm surge that reached 20 feet in places swamped small towns and inland the fierce storm toppled trees, twisted high tension electric towers to the ground, blew away roofs and knocked over small banana plantations and coconut groves.

'EVERYTHING WENT FLYING'

In Los Palacios, a few miles from Paso Quemado, streets were lined with debris as people swept water from their homes and picked up the tree branches, broken glass and roof tiles that littered their yards.

"It was terrible, never in my life have I seen anything like it," said Mirelys, a 32-year-old bank employee who did not give her full name.

"Everything went flying," she said. "My sister's house completely collapsed, she managed to get out before it fell on top of her."

"It was the worst storm I've ever seen," said Noel, 37, an unemployed resident of Santa Cruz, in a comment heard often on Sunday in the province.

Along the main highway from Havana, the Cuban capital, trees blocked the way in places and in others, big power lines from the fallen high tension towers draped across the roadway. Military units and average citizens worked to clear the roads.

Rolling fields of sugar cane that stretched to the distant mountains leaned in the direction of the wind, but were not flattened.

Damage to recently harvested tobacco in Pinar del Rio, the heart of Cuba's prized industry, was not yet known.

There was little information from the Isle of Youth, but state television showed pictures of destroyed homes, submerged factories and boats lifted from their moorings and left in city streets.

The 800,000 residents of Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth remained without power on Sunday, as did many of the more than 3 million residents of adjoining Havana province and the capital.

The capital's streets were littered with branches, shrubs and trees. In some places, windows had blown from buildings and light poles were knocked over.

Wind and rain damaged banana plantations and other crops in Havana province, the capital's bread basket.

The Cuban weather service said one of its stations measured a gust of 211 mph, the highest ever recorded.

As they looked over the surrounding chaos, Cubans showed good humor.

"Zone of destruction," a Los Palacios man shouted, holding his arms out and smiling broadly.

(Additional reporting by Marc Franc; editing by Michael Christie and Mohammad Zargham)

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