By Pedro Pablo Morejon
HAVANA TIMES – It’s Sunday [September 25], the day of the famous vote to approve the so-called Family Code. I call it “the vote to approve” because it’s pure paperwork, a staged scene with the script already written.
A few hundred kilometers away, a hurricane is approaching. Most of the forecast models have been announcing for days that the storm – now converted into a hurricane – will pass over some undetermined point in the western part of Cuba. Now we know that Pinar del Rio province is the chosen destiny of that undesirable voyager.
Nonetheless, the local authorities are so busy with the logistics of this caricature of a referendum that they’re taking few measures to minimize the potential damage.
I try to protect my little house. I tie down the roof as best I can, since it’s the most vulnerable part. A neighbor helps me prune my avocado trees. I leave my elevated water tank full and reinforce some of the windows.
Logically, it’s still unknown what part of the province the eye will pass over, but it’s clear there’ll be some kind of impact.
By Monday, I’m in the city of Pinar del Río, and it’s now known that Ian – as the storm has been named – will probably make its entrance in the early hours of Tuesday. The workplaces have announced they’ll close at noon, so people can go home.
My girlfriend wants me to stay, and between the ease of it and knowing I can’t do anything more to protect my house, I decide to take the easy path.
The sky has been overcast since sunset. As night comes on, strong tropical-force winds are beginning on the Isle of Pines, according to the report from the Meteorology Institute, even though that small island won’t receive the direct impact of the hurricane.
It’s now eleven pm and the strong winds have begun. They’ve cut off the electricity. We consult the internet to determine Ian’s position, and find that it’s very close, to the south of Pinar del Rio. The hurricane has continued to strengthen and is now considered a Category 2 storm. It’s estimated to make landfall in Cuba as a Category 3 hurricane, with its center at some point between Coloma and Boca de Galafe beach in western Cuba.
There’s an area of great intensity that will affect the entire province; the tropical storm winds will even be felt in parts of Havana, Artemisa and Mayabeque.
One AM comes. We’re very safe, you could say we’re in a bunker, but by now the winds are so strong that the noise from outside is infernal. You can hear objects falling on the street and on the nearby houses, causing frightening noises.
The information we receive is a bit contradictory. First, they say the hurricane has just made landfall in the fishing village of La Coloma; and later, that it did so at a point between Las Canas and Punto Salinas. What’s certain is that the eye has a diameter of 42 kilometers (26 miles).
I mentioned that the sound of the wind is hellish, like a noisy supersonic train that’s destroying everything in its path.
My girlfriend jumps with the sound of each object crashing into another, be it a roof, the street, a wall. I’m not afraid, I’m more rational, and feel only a growing anguish. I want to be in my own house, to know first-hand what’s happening there. I can’t stop torturing myself with recurring thoughts, reproaches, and questions. “I shouldn’t have stayed in the city, I needed to be back home. Now I don’t know what’s happening.” And “how am I going to get there tomorrow, since there will certainly be nothing available to travel in? If the roof blows off, everything will get wet, and I’ll lose the little I have.”
A weak ray of hope is all that’s left me. “Stop torturing yourself, maybe your little house was left intact. There’s a lot of things beside it that will protect it; the roof isn’t high; maybe the winds there were only tropical storm force, and it will resist.”
But the anxiety doesn’t cease, because objectively those hopeful thoughts aren’t very probable, given the reality. It’s now around five in the morning, and the wind hasn’t stopped battering our ears and worse, battering the meager properties of all, or nearly all, of us.
I only want this agony to end, and for the dawn to come so I can leave and go home and confirm what I don’t know at this moment. I haven’t had the courage to call my neighbor and have her tell me. I’m sure no one has slept or is sleeping at this hour in all Pinar del Rio province, although it’s still dark. I can’t yet go out, much less find out if I’ve sustained damages, and what they are.
Although I appear calm, my anxiety keeps rising. I imagine the cortisol levels in my blood have reached unprecedented levels. All during this night as dark as hell, I’ve been getting up every 10 minutes to urinate.
The radio bulletins announce that the hurricane is passing over a point between Santa Lucia and Puerto Esperanza, heading out to sea. The most intense winds are reported from a town just 20 kilometers west of the city of Pinar del Rio, where they’ve reached 129 miles per hour. The radio also says that the eye has passed over San Luis, another town equally distant and at a similar latitude.
7 AM: The force of the winds begins to drop, although everything still looks dark. I get up and begin to get dressed. My only thought is to leave, head in the direction of my house, face the worst, but to be there, so I can feel better and end the torture of this uncertainty. Like the phrase I read from a great chess genius: “The threat is stronger than the realization.”
The wind ceases, leaving only a light rain that makes you think the test has finally ended, even if the worst is now coming: facing the consequences. The neighbors emerge to complain or to ask each other how it went for them. Others are searching for and asking about sheets of zinc roofing that have flown off, tanks, things they lost.
“Your house will be fine, you’ll see.” She attempts to console me with that baseless phrase when she sees my worry. Meanwhile, I’ve prepared myself to remain stoic, to face the worst. I don’t believe in the magic thinking of the many who pray to God, St. Lazarus, or the Virgin of Charity, patron saint of Cuba. Forgive me believers, but it appears that the latter young woman, especially, abandoned us Cubans a long time ago.
In brief, I don’t believe in Ouija boards, or fairy tales, and I prepare myself for the worst. I take my leave with a hug and go out on the street.
Desolation is everywhere. It looks like the city was squashed under a bulldozer. The streets are full of garbage, remains, posts, cables, and downed trees. Half of the houses with light roofs suffered some damage. The grey sky, the scarce people beginning to emerge, all breathe sadness.
The anguish I feel presses on my chest, to the point where I want to cry seeing so much desolation, and for the uncertainty of not knowing what I’m going to find when I get home. I still don’t have the courage to call my neighbor to tell me, and when I finally try to, I discover that the cellphones aren’t working, nor are the landlines, so we’re totally incommunicado.
Suddenly a gust of water-logged air, coming from I don’t know where, takes over the street. In a minute, the wind force becomes tremendous, similar to what I heard in the early morning. Didn’t the eye pass over San Luis as I read in Cubadebate? Didn’t the hurricane go out to sea by Puerto Esperanza? Apparently not. It seems like part of that eye is just passing over the city now, taking us by surprise.
I take shelter behind the pillars outside the Natural History Museum. The wind gusts are terrible. I’m drenched from head to foot. I’m cold, frightened, sad, anxious, uncertain – a mix of sensations I can’t describe. While I watch the horror movie apparently begin part II, the reality of the moment fully sinks in: I’m in the eye of the hurricane itself, with no more protection than a few pillars.
I throw myself to the ground with the sensation of being entirely dispossessed. I have only my own soul, that for a moment makes me feel I’m alive.
Amid the white fog that has engulfed the landscape, I watch the pieces of cardboard, zinc and other materials go flying. I watch two trees, some 25 yards from where I am, be lifted up by the roots, together with the piece of sidewalk that covered their low trunks. I remain there until a little later, after 10 in the morning, when the wind begins to subside. The little over two hours I spent there felt as eternal as the preceding morning.
I haven’t the least hope left for my house. It’s impossible that its light-weight roof has resisted. I just thank God for being alive. Yes, God, or whatever exists.
I try to make it out to the highway, past the hotel and university zones. Trees block the streets, and my efforts are in vain. I turn around and cross through the Carlos Manuel sector of the city. Everywhere my eyes look are scenes worthy of Dante. In summary, there are an abundance of damaged houses and people’s expressions reflect sorrow and desperation.
One man remarks that the hurricane destroyed all the windows of his daughter’s house, on the eleventh floor of one of the city’s 12-story buildings. We walk along talking, while the rain falls. I’m totally wet, there are puddles in my boots, and nothing matters – only walking the four kilometers to the highway along this route. I want to go home, and that’s all there is.
The people I meet keep repeating a phrase, “This finished off everything”. The Guama River is nearly overflowing its banks, the little woodland that surrounds it before you get to the buildings is destroyed, the majority of the trees split or knocked over. The buildings present a better face, although some windows are damaged and a number of cement water tanks were knocked over by the force of the wind.
The few vehicles that are only now daring to circle the area are zig-zagging along the broad Colon road to avoid the obstructions caused by the downed trees and electricity poles, often extending into the opposite lane.
I reach the highway and by good luck don’t stay there for long. A car picks me up. During the trip, we observe the destroyed vegetation, the houses with light roofs mostly blown off, and the huts for drying tobacco all blown apart.
My thoughts are increasingly stoic. I’m ready for the worst, I only want to end the uncertainty. It’s close to noon when I reach the bridge. The ruined vegetation allows me to see clearly the entrance to town only 400 meters away.
The rain continues, harder now. I can’t use my umbrella, the wind would tear it apart. It doesn’t matter, I just want to get there. I’ve prepared myself to face the worst. There’s so much ruin, especially houses without their roofs. Now I can see my house in the distance. The roof appears intact. “Don’t believe it, something must have gotten screwed up, and it won’t be something small,” I repeat to myself. I want to be prepared, to remain steeled against disappointment, despite this small and selfish ray of hope.
A text message arrives – apparently the cell connections have been reestablished. It’s my girlfriend, who’s been extremely worried since I left. I let her know I’m alive, but that I’m still not home. I call the mother of my daughter. All is well with them, they didn’t suffer any damages. I breathe easier. With every step I take, hope fights to establish itself, but I don’t want to make room for it and become weak. I must think about the worst.
Now I’m in front of my house. The front is fine, the roof is on. I insert my key and turn it. The door opens and… just three little holes in the roof, apparently impacts from unidentified flying objects. The avocado tree is down, but by very good luck it didn’t fall on my house nor that of the neighbors. At this moment, losing an avocado tree doesn’t matter. I can plug up the holes in the roof this afternoon with some pieces of roofing that were left over – I’ll plaster them down with cement, and problem solved.
This anguish has finally ended, after some of the longest and darkest hours of my life.