Hurricane Ike batters historic Old Havana

Hurricane Ike was battering the Cuban capital, Havana, yesterday, damaging historic buildings and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee.

Ike, the fourth severe tropical storm to hit the Caribbean over the past few weeks, first made landfall in the far east of the island as a Category 3 storm on Sunday night. It has crawled westward across the island at about 15mph, with an internal windspeed of up to 135mph, resulting in a slow and violent assault upon Cuba. Tens of thousands of people have been moved from areas in immediate danger, and at least four people have been killed.

"The piercing wind is whistling right over our heads and the rain is incredible. There's glass breaking around us and things are hitting the walls", Raida Mara Suarez Portal, director of cultural heritage of the Office of the City Historian of Havana, said.

Sheltering in her office in the Palace of the Captain-Generals, one of the most splendid baroque buildings in Old Havana and a world heritage site, Ms Suarez Portal provided a grim email account of the experience of being in the heart of a hurricane: "We are still at our posts. We lost the plywood protecting the 18th-century glass of the terrace at 3.30am.

"We have about 200 people from houses nearby sheltering here, with about 150 people trying to keep the doors and windows shut. The people are very hungry having been here for hours and we're trying to keep them quiet. We've just heard news of the first buildings collapsing near Casa Humboldt, one of the most important museums in the city."

Transport, electricity and gas were cut off by the authorities at 2am, but, she wrote: "Luckily our electricity is brought in underground and can't be cut off. So far the sea hasn't reached us".

Old Havana is one of the most visited sites in the Caribbean, attracting thousands of British tourists annually. "It is heartbreaking that so many years of painstaking restoration work may be undone in the space of a few hours" says Juliet Barclay, author of Havana: Portrait of a City.

Those locked down inside the Palace of the Captain-Generals have been unable to leave the building due to the extreme winds, lashing rain and the threat of electrocution from broken cabling thrashing across the square in front.

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