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Cuba scrambles to limit hurricane sugar damage

People walk on a street littered with debris after Hurricane Sandy hit Santiago de Cuba Oct. 26, 2012.

DESMOND BOYLAN/REUTERS

Cuban sugar farmers were scrambling this week to drain plantations in the eastern provinces of Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Holguin where Hurricane Sandy flattened and flooded sugar plantations late last week.

Orlando Celso Garcia, president of the Sugar Company Group (AZCUBA), was reported by Holguin's Ahora newspaper to be in the area assessing the storm's impact on plans to produce 1.68 million tonnes of raw sugar during the soon-to-begin harvest, 20 per cent more than the previous crop's 1.4 million tonnes.

The storm also seriously damaged homes, cut power and communications, tore roofing off mills and tore up roads in the area.

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The was particularly heavy in Santiago and Holguin, responsible for 15 per cent of the last season's tonnage, according to local reports.

A Reuters camera crew reported flattened, mangled and flooded cane throughout the area.

"Hurricane Sandy seriously damaged Santiago's sugar industry … The violent hurricane winds flattened significant areas of cane," the province's Sierra Maestra newspaper reported, quantifying the area around three mills at more than 20,000 hectares.

Santiago produced 86,000 tonnes of raw sugar during the previous harvest and planned to produce more than 100,000 tonnes this season.

Ahora said on Monday that "around 50 per cent of standing cane was affected to one degree or another."

The province produced 150,000 tonnes of raw sugar during the last harvest and planned to near 200,000 tonnes this season.

Damage was reportedly heaviest at the Urbano Noris mill and surrounding plantations, which accounts for more than half the province's output.

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"There are more than 10,000 hectares under water, of which 8,000 were flattened," Lazaro Rodriguez, the mill's director, told the Ahora newspaper, adding that his mill lost much of its roofing.

"At this moment what's most important is to drain the flooded plantations, because perhaps there are some we can save," he said.

Rainfall during the tail end of the storm also flooded plantations in the central part of the country, though local experts said they could be drained without significant damage to the crop.

"The flooded cane will not be damaged if it's drained within a week, while some flattened cane, if not seriously damaged, might also be salvageable," said a local agricultural expert, who asked not to be identified.

The harvest typically runs from December through April. This year, however, a handful of mills are scheduled to open in late November. Fifty mills will grind during the season, four more than during the previous one.

The Sugar Ministry was closed late last year and replaced by AZCUBA, with subsidiaries in each province.

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The state-run company hopes to reverse a long decline in output from 8 million tonnes in 1990 and produce 2.4 million tonnes by 2015.

Cuba has not imported sugar for a number of years.

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