Elsa Hit Cuba Amid Pandemic Surge

In much of Cuba, including Havana, the rains from Tropical Storm Elsa were not as heavy as feared. Photo: Ortelio González Martínez / granma.cu

As the tropical storm withdrew from the country and it became safe, Civil Defense units announced the next phase of action and are taking on recovery efforts.

By IPS-Cuba

HAVANA TIMES – The passing of tropical storm Elsa through Cuba led to a great launch of organization and news efforts, after it hit the archipelago at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has reached an all-time high. It was the fifth Atlantic storm to be named this 2021 hurricane season.

Classified as a Category 1 hurricane as it passed through the Caribbean before reaching Cuba, this system penetrated the island from the south in the Matanzas province, in the afternoon of July 5th, and left the island by sea in the north, during the night, entering the Florida Strait. It is now over land in Georgia, USA.

As a result of the potential threat it posed for Cuba, Civil Defense units decreed different phases for each region a long time before Elsa came with its heavy rains and winds in the country’s eastern region in the night of July 3rd. These phases are to protect the Cuban people and the country’s economic resources.

“Prevent human and material losses is the currency,” the Cuban president and first secretary of the Communist Party, Miguel Diaz-Canel, wrote on his Twitter account.

The measures included the activation of local defense committees, the evacuation of people living in areas at risk of flooding and collapse, the protection of food and state assets in every sector, the hastened harvest of crops and its distribution, plus the surveillance of dams and reservoirs.

According to preliminary data, calculated via local media, over 144,000 Cubans had been evacuated, and they were mostly staying at friends and relatives’ homes and in centers set up for this emergency.

Elsa has been quite beneficial for Cuba’s reservoirs, which were only at 61% capacity on July 5th.

The Cuban authorities guided actions to create an inventory of resources, such as building materials and mattresses, as well as organizing documents so that they could help citizens who might lose their homes due to Elsa.

“The national economic situation, with all of the problems we have, with the blockade and this pandemic, has made things a lot worse, we don’t have the luxury of losing something,” prime minister Manuel Marrero said, during a meeting of Havana’s Defense Committee.

As Elsa began to move away from different provinces and the situation became safe, recovery efforts began, including repairs on electricity failures.

Difficult moment

One of the things that makes Elsa different from other meteorological phenomena in the past, is the exceptional situation the country is experiencing, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is currently experiencing its worst wave yet.

Before the hurricane hit the island during the day on July 3rd, the country reported 21 deaths, the highest number of fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, and while some 444 new cases were reported less compared to the day before (3519, the highest number of infections up to date), 3075 new cases were still reported in the country of 11.2 million people. [A new record of positive Covid-19 cases was set on July 6th at 3,664.]

Having to evacuate people, local authorities repeated calls for people to respect hygiene/health regulations to prevent COVID-19 transmission, including physical distancing, wearing a mask and washing hands regularly.

It’s significant that most of the places that are normally used as evacuation centers, including education facilities and hotels, are now being used as isolation centers for people who test positive for COVID-19, or are suspected of having caught the virus.

Damages and benefits

According to preliminary reports, Elsa, which went from being a hurricane to a tropical storm, on July 3rd, caused some damage to Cuban agriculture – in Granma province’s banana plantations, for example. Other damages may be revealed in days to come.

The tropical storm was somewhat beneficial for Cuba’s reservoirs, which were only at 61% of their capacity on July 5th.

According to Argelio Fernandez, director of hydrology at the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources, the largest Cuban dam – Zaza – in the central Sancti Spiritus province, had received “some values”, that could increase in following days, when the effects of the storm have been fed back.

While less than what was expected, provinces such as Granma, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba also saw improvements in water levels in their reservoirs, as a result of the rains that came with Elsa.

Heavy rains, that have ensured water for upcoming months, also caused swells in rivers that left several towns isolated.

“We haven’t been able to leave because it’s raining a lot, they are all isolated,” Elsa Vicet said, from the town of Jibacoa, in the mountainous Manicaragua municipality, in Villa Clara.

Meteorological forecasts indicate that even when the storm leaves Cuban soil, heavy rains might persist for the next few days, depending on winds.

Media storm

While the Cuban people are always kept informed of events during meteorological events of this kind, Elsa ended up gaining a lot more media coverage, with changes in radio and TV programming, as the normal updates on Cubadebate and Granma’s websites joined social media.

State TV’s news program, which was broadcasting 24 hours, enriched its content with contributions of audio messages, images and videos of journalists and voluntary observers posted from different areas in the country, including hard-to-reach areas.

The Cuban people were able to keep updated on the situation via social media, on the Telegram channel for Juventud Tecnica magazine, for example, or on the TT Elsa Informacion WhatsApp group, created by the audiovisual project “Paloma”.

2021 hurricane season

According to experts at the Institute of Meteorology (INSMET), there are favorable conditions (both oceanic and atmospheric) on the whole for hurricanes to develop during the 2021 hurricane season, which extends from June 1st until November 30th.

It was forecast to be an active season before the season began, with the possible formation of 16 tropical storms, eight of which might reach hurricane strength.

According to Dr. Celso Pazos Alberdi, INSMET’s general director, it was expected that 10 of these phenomena would take place in the Atlantic Ocean, three in the Caribbean Sea and three more in the Gulf of Mexico. There was an 85% chance that Cuba would be hit by a tropical storm, with came true already with Elsa.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.