By Nelson Acosta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Waves of up to 36 feet (11 meters) smashed businesses along Havana's sea side drive on Sunday morning in the wake of Hurricane Irma, pummeling famous hotels such as the Copacabana, which were evacuated along with flooded neighborhoods.
First responders spent the night rescuing people from their homes in central Havana as the sea struck with historic force in the flood-prone area, even as the storm approached Florida to the north.
Irma did not hit Havana directly and brought only moderate wind and rain, but the storm surge was still driving giant waves over the sea wall on Sunday.
Winds whipped Varadero, the country’s most important tourist resort, 72 miles (116 km) east of the capital and closer to where Irma moved away from shore Saturday evening, but it appeared to escape the full fury of the storm.
Irma weakened to a Category 3 cyclone over Cuba, before strengthening again en route to Florida.
Thousands of tourists were evacuated to Varadero from other resorts along the northern keys of the country that were directly hit by Irma on Saturday.
There was no information about the tourists, but conditions at Varadero did not appear to be life-threatening.
“Our preliminary estimate of damage in Varadero is that it was concentrated in metal structures, false ceilings, and some buildings,” Teresa Rojas Monzon, head of civil defense in Matanzas province, where the resort is located, told state-run television on Sunday.
Pedro Rizo Martinez, a local television reporter, broadcast that it was impossible to leave his location overnight due to strong winds and rain, but said it appeared there was damage to hotels and infrastructure.
Access to the worst-affected keys, popular with Canadian and European tourists, was made difficult due to damage to causeways and bridges, as well as government controls, but reports on Saturday said hotels had been damaged.
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Jeffrey Benkoe)