U.N. provides Cuba with food aid after Irma rips up coast

HAVANA, Sept 16 (Reuters) - The United Nations' World Food Programme said on Saturday it was launching a $5.7 million operation in Cuba to help feed nearly 700,000 people in areas most affected by Hurricane Irma.

The monster storm ripped last weekend along the length of the northern coastline of the Caribbean's largest island, tearing off roofs, wrecking the power grid and damaging crops.

"This hurricane just went down the entire coastline, the volume of impact is just unprecedented," WFP Executive Director David Beasley said during a visit to Havana, after meeting with Cuban Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

The WFP already had more than 1,600 tonnes of food pre-positioned around Cuba available to distribute and had funds to buy more. It would start by distributing for free rations of rice and beans in the most vulnerable areas.

RELATED: Inside Irma's destruction:

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The worst of Hurricane Irma's destruction
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The worst of Hurricane Irma's destruction
A destroyed trailer park is seen after Hurricane Irma strikes Florida, in Plantation Key in the Florida Keys, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
An uprooted tree that slashed a trailer in half in the wake of Hurricane Irma is pictured at a mobile home park in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Gregg Newton
Storm damage is seen from the air after hurricane Irma passed Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, September 11, 2017. Picture taken September 11, 2017. Captain George Eatwell RM/Ministry of Defence handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Boats wrecked by Hurricane Irma are seen from a plane in Sint Maarten, Netherlands September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Waves crash at the seafront Malecon seen from a damaged restaurant after Hurricane Irma caused flooding and a blackout, in Havana, Cuba September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
SAINT MARTIN - SEPTEMBER 11: Hurricane damage on the island of Saint Martin after the passage of the hurricane IRMA through the Caribbean Islands on September 11, 2017 in the French island of Saint Martin. (Photo by Aurelien Morissard/IP3/Getty Images)
MARCO ISLAND, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: An office with the roof missing is seen after Hurricane Irma passed in Marco Island, Fla. on Monday, Sept 11, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
PHILIPSBURG, ST MAARTEN - SEPTEMBER 11: Franklin Sosa from San Pedro Macoris, Dominican Republic, walks past a split palm tree on September 11, 2017 in Philipsburg, St. Maarten. The Caribbean island sustained extensive damage from Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)
NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: A man walks through a flooded street in a rural part of Naples the morning after Hurricane Irma swept through the area on September 11, 2017 in Naples, Florida. Hurricane Irma made another landfall near Naples yesterday after inundating the Florida Keys. Electricity was out in much of the region with extensive flooding. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
EAST NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: A home is shown damaged after Hurricane Irma hit the area on September 11, 2017 in East Naples, Florida. Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm on Sunday, lashing the state with 130 mph winds as it moved up the coast. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Housing insulation is seen floating in flood water in a mobile housing park after the passing of Hurricane Irma in Naples, Florida, U.S. September 11, 2017 REUTERS/Stephen Yang
A bedroom is seen in a mobile housing park after the passing of Hurricane Irma in Naples, Florida, U.S. September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Yang
JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: Justin Hand navigates storm surge flood waters from Hurricane Irma along the St. Johns River on Sept. 11, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. Flooding in downtown Jacksonville along the river topped a record set during Hurricane Dora in 1965. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: The St. Johns River rises from storm surge flood waters from Hurricane Irma on Sept. 11, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. Flooding in downtown Jacksonville along the river topped a record set during Hurricane Dora in 1965. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
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Irma's impact on food availability in the a nation of 11 million inhabitants may be both short and medium-term, Beasley said.

"We are talking about 60,000 hectares of agricultural land that have been dramatically impacted, banana trees, citrus, rice maize, everything," Beasley said.

Cuba would need to assess the soil's salinity to ascertain how that would affect the next planting season, he said.

In the light of climate change, Irma could be a "sign off more things to come," Beasley warned.

"Fifty to forty years ago, the hurricanes were less frequent, and less severe," he said, adding that WFP was working with the Cuban leadership to prepare for such change.

At the height of its strength, Irma ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century and was the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in Cuba since 1932.

"It's times like this when we all lay aside our political differences and come together for the common good," said Beasley, former governor of South Carolina in the United States, Cuba's old Cold War foe.

RELATED: Irma destruction in Havana

12 PHOTOS
After Irma, tourists celebrate in Havana
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After Irma, tourists celebrate in Havana
A tourist stands on the beach a day after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Varadero, Cuba, September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Tourists gather in a hotel bar a day after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Varadero, Cuba, September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
A tourist from Chile drinks rum on the beach a day after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Varadero, Cuba, September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
British tourist Terry Gill watches a chicken and its chicks as he rests on a broken palm tree a day after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Varadero, Cuba, September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Tourists enjoy a beach a day after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Varadero, Cuba, September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Tourists and a security agent are seen on a beach a day after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Varadero, Cuba, September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Tourists from England and Scotland have drinks in a hotel a day after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Varadero, Cuba, September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
British tourist Terry Gill watches a chicken and its chicks as he rests on a broken palm tree a day after the passage of Hurricane Irma in Varadero, Cuba, September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Tourists walk on the seaside in Varadero, Matanzas province, -140km east of Havana- on September 10. 2017. Thousands of tourists from had been evacuated to hotels on this beach during the passage of Hurricane Irma. / AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
Tourists swim in dangerous waves in Varadero beach, Matanzas province -140km east of Havana- on September 10. 2017. Thousands of tourists from had been evacuated to hotels on this beach during the passage of Hurricane Irma. / AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
A tourist leaves the beach in Varadero, Matanzas province, -140km east of Havana- on September 10. 2017. Thousands of tourists from had been evacuated to hotels on this beach during the passage of Hurricane Irma. / AFP PHOTO / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
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