Mighty waves from Wilma transform Havana

HAVANA - Hurricane Wilma never made landfall in Cuba, but its ferocious waves transformed the island's capital city for a day, ripping off chunks of the famous Malecon seawall and flooding many of Havana's most prominent streets.

Picturesque but dilapidated buildings lining the northern coastal highway alongside the Malecon received an especially severe beating on Monday. Their doors and wooden window shutters were flung off as first-floor homes filled with waist-deep water.

"This has been terrible, a true catastrophe," said Aurora Quintana, 38, who lives on the second floor of a building facing the ocean. "These houses are already in really bad shape. Recovering from this, given our economic situation, is going to be tough."

Cuba's communist government sent amphibious vehicles and rescue squads to evacuate nearly 250 residents from homes throughout the city.

Cars were almost completely submerged on Monday, and only the bright blue tops of public phone booths peeked out from the churning, brown waters. Waves lapped at the front door of the seaside Foreign Ministry building as young men in wooden boats rowed nearby.

But by early Tuesday, most of the flooding had receded as the water returned to the sea.

There were no immediate reports of deaths or major injuries. Nearly 700,000 people were evacuated across Cuba's west in recent days as Wilma approached.

Although the Malecon, which curves for several miles throughout the capital, and adjacent neighborhoods often flood during storms, the extent of Monday's flooding was highly unusual and reportedly occurs only when hurricanes pass along Cuba's northern coast.

As night fell Monday, residents along the Malecon nailed doors back down on their homes, praying the ocean would calm down as they braced for a night without electricity and water.

"No one has come here yet to check up on us, to see how we fared," said Ignacio Duro, 36. "My faith goes as far as what I can get done myself."

One civil defense volunteer in a different part of town said Duro's neighborhood was still too dangerous, as the ocean continued its aggressive assault over the seawall.

But those with second-floor apartments invited their downstairs neighbors to wait out the night with them. About 20 people, many of them children, filled Quintana's modest home, where she prepared a meal of rice and meat and shared the clean water she had saved before the storm.

"I have plenty of beds, so at least the kids can get a good night's sleep," she said. "It's nothing, really - these people have lost everything."

Wilma also spun off several tornados over the weekend in Cuba that left six injured and destroyed more than 20 homes and tobacco curing houses in the country's western tobacco-growing region.