Passengers queue to rebook their flights which have been canceled due to the effect of hurricane "Irma" at Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida, the United States, on Sept. 8, 2017. (Xinhua/Yin Bogu)
Eastern Cuba started to feel early Friday the impact of the heavy rain and strong winds from hurricane "Irma," now rated 4 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, moving west-northwest toward Florida, the United States, and leaving a trail of destruction in the Caribbean islands.
Cuba's Institute of Meteorology reported that the rains started in easternmost Guantanamo with tides between 4 to 5 meters and coastal flooding and waves between 5 to 8 meters, conditions that will extend to the north coast of the neighboring territories Las Tunas and Holguin in the morning.
The National Civil Defense (DC) decreed the "alarm phase" for the eastern region of the country, the "alert" for central provinces, and the "informational" for the West, including Havana.
In the eastern provinces, over 565,000 people have been evacuated from coastal areas to inland while houses have been protected to minimize the damages that could be caused by the storm.
The Civil Defense has called on citizens to comply with security measures indicated by local authorities in order to avoid dangers.
Besides, some 13,000 tourists vacationing in the Caribbean archipelago have been evacuated to inland or returned home as they were hosted in coastal resorts or the northern Keys, where hurricane Irma has posed threats.
"Most Canadian visitors, who represent 60 percent of the total of tourists in these Keys, have already returned home earlier via special flights. The rest are absolutely protected in other areas of the country away from danger," Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told state television.
At 6:00 a.m. local time (1000 GMT), Irma's core was located at 21.8 degrees north latitude and 74.0 degrees west longitude, about 168 km north of the Maisi tip in Guantanamo. Its minimum pressure has risen to 925 Mb and moves towards west-northwest at a speed of 26 km/h.
During the early hours of Friday, Irma weakened slightly and decreased its maximum sustained winds to 250 km/h. It is now at the upper limit of Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, very close to Category 5. But it still remains a very powerful and dangerous system, said the Institute of Meteorology.
According to the forecasts for the next 12-24 hours, the hurricane will continue its route west-northwest crossing over the Old Bahama Channel, but decrease its speed and remain very close to the north coast of Cuba's central and eastern regions.
It is expected to hit the Florida Keys and South Florida by Saturday night.
Irma is considered the most powerful Atlantic hurricane on record. On its way to Miami, it left a trail of devastation in the Caribbean islands, turning paradise into emergency zones.
The mighty weather event just side swept Puerto Rico, leaving 60 percent of households without electricity. It also destroyed 95 percent of St. Martin Island and left half of the population homeless in Antigua and Barbuda.
In Cuba, the proximity of Irma has raised the ghost of hurricane "Ike," on a similar date in 2008, the second of the wave of three powerful hurricanes that hit the country in August to September that year, causing huge economic losses.
According to official figures, Cuba has been hit by 29 tropical cyclones in the last two decades, including 19 hurricanes of great intensity.
The last one to strike the island was "Matthew" last October, which caused over 2.4 billion U.S. dollars in damages in the eastern part of the country but claimed no lives due to timely protection measures.