HAVANA TIMES — All Cubans have seen the images published in the Cuban media of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in the east, especially in the city of Santiago, the second largest city in the country and the most Caribbean of all.
Virtually everyone has been moved by the destruction left behind by the mega-storm that hit the island on October 25 and may end up totaling more than $2 billion dollars in losses, including the damage to more than 130,000 homes –in Santiago de Cuba alone where some 15,000 units were completely destroyed.
At 6:00 a.m. on the very same morning of the disaster, I tried to communicate with friends and family members who live in that sister province. It was difficult and expensive on a cellphone, but we managed to make contact and were able to find out about those loved ones who were most affected.
“Several dead” was the first major piece of bad news; “including one newborn,” the second worst; and finally came the equally striking information: “Santiago is destroyed.”
“What do they mean by that? How could it have been destroyed? “I asked, fearing the worst. “It looks more like this place was hit by World War III than by a hurricane,” I was told on the other end of the line, which was also a cellphone.
I momentarily stood there speechless. Since the cellphone I was using hardly had a balance on the card, we decided to try to get back in touch later through some other means.
That’s where we left it, at least until my cousin Albertico called two hours later from a landline phone. That was when I found out in detail what was left of the city of my dreams.
It was during this second contact that we were first told about the damage suffered by family members and friends, which people’s home’s had been affected, if anyone among the dead was known to us, and other details about loved ones in both provinces.
Fortunately our whole family was safe. There were no injuries or deaths. The only incident among a family member had involved another cousin who lives in San Pedrito; he lost his home, but he was taken in and received all the assistance possible. Among my friends, two were left without homes and another one lost some of the walls of her house.
After those details came the news about the city as a whole. “Ok, now tell me, what was the major damage?” I asked my cousin.
“I don’t know where to start,” he said. “Rosa, Santiago is going to have to rebuild from scratch. Just to give you a simple idea: There wasn’t a single tree — not one — still standing. They are either on the ground or crashed onto buildings and houses, and all the poles and wires are on the ground.”
“On top of that, let me tell you what I remember most from the rounds I made this morning,” he continued.
“Of the two Coopelias [outdoor ice cream parlors], nothing’s left; the two bus terminals are gone, it blew off the whole top of the Heredia Theater, it damanged the Guillermon Moncada stadium and the newer Hotel Santiago, the 18 floors of the Garzon Building are completely without windows, and it caused major damage to several supermarkets, the University of Oriente and the rum factory.”
And that was just mentioning what he could remember seeing or what he had heard from others. It was just horrible.
I couldn’t believe it. In Santiago there was nothing standing. The city had been completely destroyed. There were no factories, schools, hospitals, grocery stores, money exchange centers, museums, cultural centers, sports facilities or anything else that didn’t suffer damage.
After hearing Alberto’s words, I simply froze, not knowing what to say or do. My first impulse was to leave and head over there. Even though I couldn’t do anything, even though my financial situation wouldn’t allow me to contribute much, I still wanted to be there for my family and friends, for the city.
I didn’t go there that day. I too had suffered from the storm. I needed to work on repairing the house of my parents, who are old and couldn’t do it alone. My own house hadn’t escaped the hurricane either, and it too needed urgent repairs. But it was only a matter of hours before I went. In less than 36 hours I was in Santiago, to see with my own eyes what Sandy’s fury had left, or — better said — what it had not left.