Irma downgraded to Category 3 after lashing Cuba

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Residents of Cuba's north-central region awoke Saturday to some of most dangerous conditions in recent decades, with giant waves, hurricane-force winds and torrential rains associated with major Hurricane Irmalashing coastal areas, including the towns of Remedios and Caibarien, both of which are national heritage sites.

Caibarien, in the northern part of the central province of Villa Clara, is one of the communities most affected because of its coastal location. 

Lowland areas were completely flooded by the storm surge, while its empty streets are littered with debris and trees knocked over by winds that reached 250 km/h (155 mph).

Streets closest to the coast were devoured by the sea, although the magnitude of the damage will not be able to be assessed until the tide lowers.

At present, access to Caibarien, which in the early 20th century was an important port enclave, has been cut off and no mobile phone communication is possible.

Another national heritage site affected by Irma was the neighboring town of Remedios, which is located seven kilometers (4.3 miles) inland from Caibarien and has been without power since Friday night.

Many houses there have lost their roofs, the tiles having been scattered by the force of the wind, while palm trees are bent in half; torrential rains were continuing to fall throughout Saturday morning.

In nearby provinces to the east - Ciego de Avila and Camaguey, where Irma's power was felt Friday afternoon -, the impact was devastating. Especially hard hit was the Sabana-Camaguey Archipelago, where the tourist resorts of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are located.

The more than 30,000 tourists who had planned to spend their vacations there, mostly Canadians, were evacuated three days ago from the cays of that island chain, and only the most solid hotel structures survived the major hurricane.

It was in that area that Irma made landfall on the small island of Cayo Romano at 9 pm Friday night (0100 GMT Saturday) as a Category 5 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 260 km/h.

In its latest public advisory at 11 am (1500 GMT), the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said Irma was located 145 kilometers east-southeast of Varadero, Cuba, and about 285 kilometers southeast of Key West, Florida.

It is currently moving toward the west along the north coast of Cuba at around 15 km/h (9 mph), the NHC said, which added that Irma has weakened to a Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 205 km/h (125 mph).

But the NHC said Irma is forecast to re-strengthen once it moves away from Cuba and remain a powerful hurricane as it approaches Florida.

On its current forecast track, Irma is projected to move near or over the north coast of Cuba later Saturday, reach the Florida Keys Sunday morning and move along or near the southwest coast of Florida on Sunday afternoon.

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