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UN to send food for 500,000 in eastern Cuba after Sandy; power grid at 64 percent in Santiago

The United Nations on Tuesday announced a humanitarian aid mission to eastern Cuba in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, saying it could end up being the most damaging storm to hit that part of the island in 50 years.

The U.N.'s World Food Program said in a statement that it is coordinating with Cuban authorities to provide one month's food rations for nearly a half million people in and around Santiago, a city of about 500,000 people that was clobbered when Sandy came ashore as a category 2 hurricane on Oct. 25.

"We are especially concerned about the damage in the agricultural sector where tens of thousands of hectares of staple crops have been affected," WFP emergency coordinator William Vigil was quoted as saying. "Livestock facilities have also been also seriously damaged, particularly in Santiago, and this humanitarian assistance will help people continue until production capacities are restored."

The government has estimated that more than 200,000 homes were damaged, and the WFP said that means more than 1 million people, about 10 percent of the island's residents, were affected.

"Sandy is possibly the single most destructive hurricane experienced by eastern Cuba in the last 50 years," the WFP said.

Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde reported Tuesday that electricity had been restored to 64 percent of customers in Santiago, and to 53 percent in the surrounding province of the same name.

Santiago's famed Coppelia ice creamery, a popular spot to grab a cool treat in the steamy Caribbean city, reopened for business in a symbolic sign of a gradual return to normal.

Authorities said more than 24 million cubic feet (700,000 cubic meters) of downed trees and other debris had been cleared across the province.

In nearby Guantanamo province, officials said power was restored to 99 percent of households.

Holguin province reported damage to 500 hotel rooms but said repairs should be complete in time for the tourism high season beginning Nov. 15, according to Juventud Rebelde.

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Associated Press writer Peter Orsi is on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi