by Raul Menchaca
HAVANA, Sept. 7 (Xinhua) -- Cubans, who are World-renowned for their emergency preparedness, jumped into action on Thursday ahead of their expected brush with fearsome Hurricane Irma.
While Cuba is not likely to take a direct hit from the most powerful category-five hurricane ever to emerge from the Atlantic Ocean, Irma was forecast to lash the island's northern coast early Friday as it heads towards the southern area of the United States.
Under the headline "Cuba in action!," state daily Granma posted images of the measures officials and residents were taking to ensure the storm wreaks as little havoc as possible.
Men placed corrugated metal sheets over glass-fronted shops, dump trucks moved mountains of sand to soak up excess water, and teams took down road signs and other fixtures that could turn into potentially deadly projectiles if dislodged by strong winds.
Others stocked up on necessities like bottled water and batteries.
"I'm buying whatever I can, because we're preparing for the cyclone's arrival. We're preparing every way we can," Marlene Perez, a retired teacher, told Xinhua as she left a shopping center in downtown Havana with several bags of food items for her family and neighbors.
Cuba's capital is situated on the country's northwestern coast.
There's an air of anxiety as residents prepare for the worst, but there is also an awareness that the government is there to oversee the disaster management through Cuba's well-oiled Civil Defense (DC) system.
"I think this is one of the countries where the Civil Defense responds immediately to everything," said Perez.
Cuba's state-run emergency services have proven effective in handling both the preparations and aftermath of natural disasters, as the nation's historically low death tolls and ability to bounce back from devastation can attest.
"If it wasn't for that, imagine all the things that could have happened here," said Perez, referring to the numerous hurricanes Cuba has survived.
Karen Calvino, who was shopping for supplies for her two children, including milk and cookies, said the government plans far in advance for the annual hurricane season, which runs from June to November.
"Once they have identified a hurricane, immediately everyone gets to work. In fact, the hurricane has not arrived yet and we are already in the warning stage, which shows how well organized everything is," said Calvino.
Some 700,000 people have been evacuated from Cuba's northeastern coast as Hurricane Irma barrels westward across the Caribbean, authorities said Thursday.
The eye of the hurricane was expected to pass between the island of Hispaniola, home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the Turks and Caicos Islands late Thursday.
"The core of the hurricane will then move between the north coast of Cuba and the Bahamas," said a statement from Cuba's weather service.
Irma's maximum sustained winds remain at 280 km/h with higher gusts making it a potentially catastrophic tropical cyclone.
The hurricane's outer bands were expected to unleash pounding rain on Cuba's eastern provinces of Guantanamo and Holguin on Thursday night, along with tropical storm force winds and waves that could reach 6 to 8 meters high.
Cuba's Civil Defense declared a hurricane warning for all eastern provinces and the central territory of Ciego de Avila, and urged all governments and civilian groups to complete their preparations for the superstorm.
More than 10,000 tourists vacationing in the island have already been evacuated or flew home.
Irma has left a wake of devastation in the Caribbean, killing at least 15 people and damaging homes and other infrastructure in Antigua and Barbuda, Puerto Rico, St. Martin, and the north coast of the Dominican Republic.
After grazing northern Cuba, Irma is expected to hit the U.S. state of Florida.
Cuba's Civil Defense authorities are now working with the United Nations World Food Program to guarantee provisions for regions likely to be affected by the storm.
Cuba maintains an emergency reserve of grains, including 1,600 metric tons of rice and beans, strategically warehoused in three locations, Havana, the central city of Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba, on the island's eastern tip, that could meet the needs of 275,000 people for a month.
Last year's deadly Hurricane Matthew pummeled Guantanamo, in eastern Cuba in October, damaging more than 40,000 homes. The region has yet to fully recover, with many homes still being repaired. But only four lives were lost in Cuba out of a total of 603 deaths, the vast majority in impoverished Haiti.