HAVANA - A rare tornado ripped through several working-class districts of eastern Havana late on Sunday, leaving at least three dead and scores injured as it tore off roofs, flipped vehicles and reduced some of the buildings in its path to rubble.
The twister was the strongest to hit Havana in nearly 80 years, according to Jose Rubiera, a meteorologist with the Cuban weather service. It left the streets of the worse-hit neighborhoods strewn with shards of glass and debris as well as downed trees and power lines.
"The noise made it seem like a plane was crashing down on us," said Victoria Infanta Rodriguez, 47, surveying the wreckage of her home. "But when you looked it was more like a big ball of flame - something red, red, red as if the whole country had caught fire."
Infanta Rodriguez said her family had huddled in a corner of their home like Russian nesting dolls as the tornado sucked off the roof - she sheltered her 12-year-old son and her husband sheltered her, taking the brunt of the flying debris that scratched and bruised his back.
"All we have left is the skeleton of the house," she said. Like many of her neighbors in the capital's eastern borough of Regla, the tornado had smashed many of her belongings and appliances while the rain had soaked the rest.
Rubiera told state-run news agency Prensa Latina the damage wrought suggested it was an "EF4" tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, the second most powerful category with winds up to 200 miles per hour (322 kph).
President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who toured Regla shortly after the tornado hit, earlier tweeted a preliminary toll of three dead and 172 injured.
As of 1830 EST (2330 GMT), the official toll had not been updated.
Odalys Diaz, 51, said her neighbor was killed when the roof of a nearby five-storey building came crashing down onto his which then collapsed on top of him.
Concrete debris also smashed into her flat, tearing down the wall of one room and shattering the windows.
"There was glass flying everywhere, I tried to hide under the bed," Diaz said.
The worst-hit areas - Regla, 10 de Octubre, Guanabacoa and San Miguel de Padron - are also among the most dilapidated, meaning the buildings stood a lesser chance of withstanding such strong winds.
"When I rushed up to the first floor to look for my mother, I found this disaster - the roof and front wall had gone, and she'd fallen into the street," said Victor Leiva Ramos, 41.
Leiva Ramos, who was injured while trying to find her in the rubble, including a severed tendon, had his arm bandaged. His 73-year-old mother survived with a few fractures.
Cuba prides itself on suffering relatively few deaths in hurricane season due in part to a rigorous evacuation scheme.
Yet the tornado took Havana by surprise.
State-run media had only warned residents that an approaching cold front from the north and winds from the south would create high winds, thunderstorms and heavy rainfall in the area.
Rubiera was later cited as saying that such phenomena were virtually impossible to predict when they affected such concentrated areas.
Diaz-Canel said the council of ministers had held an emergency meeting early on Monday to assess the damage and take the necessary steps to speed up the recovery work.