Hurricane Irma batters Cuba on way to Florida

A man walks against heavy winds after the passage of Hurricane Irma, at Caibarien, Villa Clara province, 330km east of Havana, on September 9, 2017. Irma's blast through the Cuban coastline weakened the storm to a Category Three, but it is still packing 125 mile-an-hour winds (205 kilometer per hour) and was expected to regain power before hitting the Florida Keys early Sunday, US forecasters said. The Cuban government extended its maximum state of alert to three additional provinces, including Havana, amid fears of flooding in low-lying areas. / AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE

A man walks against heavy winds after the passage of Hurricane Irma, at Caibarien, Villa Clara province, 330km east of Havana, on September 9, 2017.
Irma’s blast through the Cuban coastline weakened the storm to a Category Three, but it is still packing 125 mile-an-hour winds (205 kilometer per hour) and was expected to regain power before hitting the Florida Keys early Sunday, US forecasters said. The Cuban government extended its maximum state of alert to three additional provinces, including Havana, amid fears of flooding in low-lying areas. / AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE

Hurricane Irma battered central Cuba on Saturday, knocking down power lines, uprooting trees and ripping off roofs as it headed towards Florida, authorities and witnesses said.

After leaving at least 19 people dead on its path across the Caribbean, Irma was “seriously” damaging the center of the island with winds up to 256 kilometers (159 miles) per hour, Cuban state media said.

Irma weakened slightly to Category 4 early Saturday after making landfall in Cuba, according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC).

There were no confirmed casualties in Cuba.

The state meteorological service INSMET reported waves of up to seven meters (23 feet) on the northern coast.

“It has now stopped raining, but all night there was a terrible wind” which ripped up trees, knocked down power lines and damaged roofs, Gisela Fernandez, a 42-year-old nurse in central  Villa Clara province, told AFP.

In the province’s main city Caibarien, an AFP reporter said deafening gusts of wind were sweeping the area and 6,250 people had been evacuated to state refuges or other peoples’ homes.

Others were shut up in their houses.

A large part of the center and east of the island was without power, television reports said.

The governor of the central Camaguey province, Isabel Gonzalez, speaking on national television, reported “major damage,” without giving further details.

Irma is expected to strike the Florida Keys late Saturday and Sunday before moving inland.

“Some fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Irma is expected to remain a powerful hurricane as it approaches Florida,” the NHC said in a public advisory.

Some 5.6 million people there faced orders to evacuate.

In Cuba, more than a million people were evacuated as a precaution, authorities said.

Another Category 4 hurricane, Jose, was also swirling in the Atlantic with winds of up to 150 miles per hour.

It was heading towards the same string of Caribbean islands Irma had pummeled in the days before.

And Hurricane Katia struck the eastern coast of Mexico late Friday as a Category One storm, but was downgraded to a tropical storm after making landfall.

Katia was “beginning to stall” near the Sierra Madre mountains — though heavy rainfall would still “likely cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, especially in areas of mountainous terrain,” the NHC said.

CaibariénCuba | AFP

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