Cuba Faces Juggling Act after Hurricanes

By Circles Robinson*

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike are now part of Cuban history. While there were some collapsed portions of old buildings in the capital and problems for some with phone service and electricity primarily due to fallen trees, most Havana residents, like our family, are back to relative normality after the anxious weeks of waiting.

La Palma, Cuba, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008
La Palma, Cuba, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008

Not so for many other places in Cuba. Our personal relief is tempered by knowledge of the many difficulties ahead.

To Cubans and others who love the country, what just happened is truly heartbreaking. Two powerful hurricanes in ten days ravaged agriculture, wreaked havoc with the electricity grid and telecommunications and damaged or destroyed well over three hundred thousand homes. For a poor country, the losses are staggering. Cuba’s development strategies for at least the next several years have been seriously set back.

Ike made landfall in Holguin as a Category 4 storm on September 7, barely a week after Gustav roared across western Pinar de Rio province and Isla de la Juventud. The hurricane then wreaked havoc in Las Tunas and Camaguey before reentering the sea along the island’s southern coast. In a weakened, but still powerful form, it then crossed back through Pinar del Rio virtually in the same place as Gustavo.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” was repeated time and time again, with comparisons to hurricane Flora in 1963 and Michelle in 2001.

STILL ASSESSING THE DAMAGE

Preliminary estimates speak of several billion dollars of damage, but it will take some time for the government to compile a complete report of losses from both storms. When Ike hit, the damages caused by Gustav on August 31 were still being tallied.

On Friday, one preliminary estimate showed 323,800 homes damaged —many without roofs or windows—, including 47,921 totally destroyed. The United Nations office in Cuba says that the homes of one out of every eight Cubans were affected.

Plantains, citrus and other fruits, corn, yucca, sugarcane and rice plantations, coffee beans, poultry farms, you name it, were flattened or washed away by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Processing industries including sugar mills and tobacco drying huts were also hard hit.

Esteban, 65, dropped into my apartment in Havana on Thursday. A farmer from Matanzas, he is usually upbeat about the country and critical of some government policies. Today though, he was somber. He said not one banana or plantain plant was left standing in his area after Ike. All the avocados from his trees were on the ground, but no one was injured in his community and the family’s cows were saved from the flooding as they had been taken earlier to higher ground.

Matanzas, like Havana, was spared the full brunt of the storm. Esteban and I sipped a coffee and imagined what the areas seriously hit must look like.

It is not yet clear how Cuba can mitigate so much damage in so many places. Despite assistance beginning to arrive or promised from Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, China, Spain, Ecuador, Mexico, Uruguay, East Timor, the UN World Food Program and several international NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam, shortages of food and building materials are likely, as well as dramatic revisions in the country’s investment plans.

For the moment, the country has been forced to dig deep into its strategic reserves. Almost certainly, the government’s ambitious and greatly needed new housing program, and other social and economic infrastructure projects, will now have to take a back seat for the foreseeable future.

September is an important month for planting vegetables and other crops and it will be even more important considering the losses suffered. In a year that saw the international price of rice and other grains skyrocket, everybody agrees that food must be a top priority.

A SLOW MOVING HORROR MOVIE

Waiting for a hurricane to strike is a profoundly frightening experience. While no two are alike, they all resemble a horror movie that takes a long time to get down to the bloody action.

Hurricanes here usually announce their coming visit well in advance, sometimes as many as 7-10 days before they become a threat. Tension then builds through the last days when you know it’s coming your way.

Cubans are experts on facing such storms. A steady flow of information from the country’s meteorology center provides an atmosphere of calm. As the storm approaches civil defense instructions are widely broadcast. Relative normality begins to give way to preparations usually on the last two days before a strike.

With Gustav and Ike, the most amazing accomplishment of Cuba’s civil defense network was a death toll of only seven, far less that the other countries touched by one or both, including the United States, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Associated Press correspondent Anita Snow wrote about Cuba’s success at preserving lives: “The secret is the evacuations system.” She noted that 2.6 million people left their homes before the onslaught of Ike, “nearly a quarter of the island’s population.”

WHETHER TO EVACUATE

Whether to evacuate is a question on my family’s mind each time a hurricane threatens Havana. While by no means experts, experience has taught us to evaluate the risks and pay attention to neighbors in the same apartment building. In the case of both Gustav and Ike, the reports the last two days told us we could stay home, as it became clear that the eye of both storms was headed further west.

Public buildings and solid concrete housing are the main choices for people who choose to find a safer place to weather the height of the storm. The Cuban civil defense authorities and community leaders in both urban and rural areas know the level of vulnerability of each house or apartment building in their area. This allows for door-to-door visits and assistance to those needing it for evacuation. Many people evacuate on their own account, understanding that it’s a necessity for their safety.

Most evacuees stay with neighbors, friends or family with better conditions to face the storm. About 20 percent of the total goes to shelters, mostly schools and other buildings where the civil defense network provides them with food, mattresses, blankets and medical attention.

“Special attention is paid to the elderly and people with disabilities, a far cry from what happened in New Orleans three years ago during hurricane Katrina,” pointed out Snow.

In our case, we live in a third-floor apartment in a small solid, concrete building. The greatest danger comes from its many large glass windows and being a block from the sea. Plywood is like gold here, so, like our neighbors, we just tape the windows and cross our fingers hoping they won’t shatter if they break.

A family of four, we have spent the passing of several hurricanes in a bathroom where we put chairs, a rechargeable lamp, flashlight, candles, radio, drinking water, snacks, etc. It’s an eerie feeling, especially at night. Fortunately for us, none of the eyes of those hurricanes has directly hit the city of Havana.

For my six-year-old grandson, watching the development of a hurricane on TV is exciting and frightening at the same time. When school gets cancelled and we start putting important papers and other things in plastic bags and suitcases, it sinks in to him that the storm is coming and the danger is real. When the electricity gets turned off in the city for preventive reasons, it means no more cartoons and he starts getting restless. Mican, my grandson’s cat, must also sense something because as the wind picks up he hides under a bed.

PICKING UP THE PIECES

While the Cuban capital was spared from the worst of both hurricanes, many of its residents have family and friends in places that were hard hit. Tamara, 22, a film student studying in Havana and friend of the family, is from Holguin, where Ike first touched land as a Category 4 hurricane.

She wrote me on Wednesday: “I got a message from my mother in Holguin that the city [with about a third of a million residents] was devastated by Ike. The family is OK but the city is a mess without a TV transmitter and without telephone service.

“I also learned that Matanzas is swimming in water and that the situation in Pinar del Rio and the majority of places is very sad. I am truly dismayed; I know that several years will go by before the country is able to fully recover. Nature protests for all the damage that humans have caused. But ironically, its wrath often falls on the countries with the least possibility to recover. I have a lot of faith that we will know how to organize ourselves rapidly; the country has pulled out of worse disasters.”

Cubans don’t have insurance, but they do have a social security system that protects them against disaster. The government takes on the responsibility of providing building materials and helping replace lost appliances and other important possessions.

However, all of this can take a very long time due to the lack of building materials, insufficient construction crews and not enough funds for importing what the country doesn’t produce.

Now the government faces the difficult task of prioritizing limited resources in an under-developed and blockaded country. Repairing damaged homes, the national electric grid, schools, hospitals and other community infrastructure and boosting agriculture will no doubt be top priorities over any new construction.

The big decisions will take place at a time when President Raul Castro has already promised a restructuring and possible down-sizing of government institutions, originally planned to be announced in December when the legislature meets.

IT’S CUBA’S TURN TO NEED HELP

Cuba’s leaders pride themselves on the country’s self-reliance and ability to dig their way out of any hole. The fact that the country’s socialist revolution has survived a half-century of relentless hostility from Washington and out lived the collapse of the USSR and Socialist Europe reinforces their belief that they will overcome the major setback to the economy poised by Gustav and Ike.

On the other hand, as the Revolution turns “50” on January 1, the battle horses of past struggles are aging and time will tell whether the new generations are willing to accept the calls to hard work and sacrifice.

Some analysts believe the government must implement new mechanisms or reforms that make greater local government and individual initiative possible. It will take considerable effort just to get back to the difficult economic situation the country faced before the storms, largely due to the increasing international food and oil prices.

While more accustomed to assisting other countries, the Cuban government is not so good at asking for help. One thing clear is that no aid will be accepted if it comes with any strings attached or politicking from the donors. Hence, Washington’s “offer” to send its personnel to inspect the damage in a country that it has strived to destroy is seen as ludicrous.

What comes to mind as a way individuals can help Cuba in this difficult situation is to step up the campaigns against the US blockade, hoping to influence a new administration in Washington, and promote trips to the island as a way to contribute revenue while getting to know the country, its people and their monumental efforts and challenges.

*Circles Robinson’s reports and commentaries from Havana can be read at: www.circlesonline.blogspot.com



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