Iván García,13 September 2017 — On Friday September 9th, Omar, 55 years old, set up two speakers in his house, located in an inside corridor off San Lázaro Street, in Lawton, in the south of Havana, just like he does almost every weekend, and, at 6 in the evening he started to open some bottles of cheap rum for his neighbours and friends. Any event is a good excuse for a celebration. Omar and his family live with the money they make working, and what his family send him from time to time from Miami. They eat what they can come by and they don’t worry about the future.
When Omar found out that Hurricane Irma’s high winds were going to hit the island, he rang the electric company and the public services, to get them to cut the medium sized palm tree in the patio of his house. “I have been having this fight for a year now, especially when a hurricane is approaching. They always argue about it. They told me they would come right away, or, if not, they would send a team in a few hours. But it’s all hassle and lies. Look at what’s happened”, he says and indicates the concrete roof of his house, destroyed when the palm tree fell on it early in the morning of Sunday, September 10th.
There are stories like Omar’s all over Havana. Luis, a medical centre nurse in La Vibora had to work Sunday morning, just when Irma devastated the city with its surges of wind and rain.
“Before, the Luis de la Puente Uceda medical centre-hospital was located in a substantial building with all the necessary sanitary conditions and medical equipment. Then they decided to set up in the building a limited access surgery centre, principally for dealing with foreigners, and moved the medical centre to a less than ideal leaky ramshackle old house”, Luis explains. And he remembers what an ordeal it was.
“It was raining more inside than outside. With many of the windows broken, there were bits of wood, tin cans and leaves blowing in. The old electricity generator which wasn’t properly maintained, cut out from time to time, leaving the medical centre in darkness. When I knocked off at seven in the morning, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t windy and hardly raining any more, I had to walk home over 4 miles because some brilliant person had decided to suspend the city transport”.
Nearly 72 hours after Irma had passed Havana, Public Services, which is responsible for waste collection, had not done that over wide areas of Diez de Octubre, the most densely populated part of the capital. “Here we hadn’t seen any sign of the electric company vehicles or those of the water or public services. The streets were full of bushes and smashed up stuff left by the storm and people had piled it up wherever. That discussion by the government about which teams would collect the vegetation and the rubbish and that they had already started recovering the situation in the city was just for the television”, says a neighbour.
Although the strong winds lost their intensity as they approached Havana and did not greatly affect the capital and Artemisa province, since September 9th many Havana neighbourhoods are suffering power cuts and have no drinking water. “It was known that the areas worst affected by the hurricane were the coastal districts of Playa, Plaza, Havana Central, Old Havana, and East Havana. It looks like the authorities devoted all their resources to those areas and forgot the rest of us existed, complained Migdalia, a resident of La Cuevita, a poor area in San Miguel del Padrón.
The sea flooded over the coastal areas covering the streets 2,000 feet inland. “They looked like overflowing rivers. The water covered El Vedado, Central Havana and Old Havana. As most of the families living in these areas were evacuated, and in spite of the fact that the police and the civil defence said they would be protected, the looters had a field day. Several foreign currency outlets and shops in Miramar, Vedado and Central Havana were looted”, explained an agent deployed to keep order in important locations.
But the worst disasters of Hurricane Irma occurred in the central provinces of Cuba bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north. Sayli Sosa, journalist for the Invasor daily, from Ciego de Ávila, visited La Cayeria north of Ciego de Ávila. There, on the morning of Saturday, September 9th, the eye of the Category 5 hurricane touched land. Irma was merciless in the tourist spots on the keys, which geographically belong to Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila and Villa Clara. The ten workers who stayed in Hotel Meliá Cayo because of their duties sheltered themselves in a safe place, but admitted they had the greatest fright of their lives. “It was Dante-esque”, they said.
Sosa also went over to the town of Bolivia in Ciego de Avila, where he talked to Eusebio, a septuagenarian, who told him he was not afraid of hurricanes. The neighbours took shelter in the only house in the neighbourhood capable of coping with angry Irma. But pigheaded Eusebio wanted to stay put and when things got nasty he couldn’t get out. At three in the morning the deafening wind crashed through the cracks in the palmwood boarding of his house and the damp balsa wool material of the roof whistled horribly. He thought that the roof ridge was going to collapse and he got under the kitchen counter. The partly constructed grey reinforced concrete counter was what saved his life.
We have seen photos and videos and have heard descriptions of Irma’s cruelty in the tourist places in Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santamaria, but we don’t have figures for the damage caused. In August 2016, I was staying at the Memories Flamenco Beach Resort Hotel, situated in Cayo Coco, Jardines del Rey archipelago in the north of Ciego de Avila. While I was there I wrote two chronicles. In one of them, called Cayo Coco, a commercial centre for the Cuban capitalist military, I said: “As with 70% of the tourist facilities in Cuba, the Memories Flamenco Hotel is managed by the Gaviota S.A. commercial operation, a business which set up in 1989 under the auspices of Fidel Castro, with the pretext of testing the profitability of the incipient tourism business”.
A few months after the main tourist season (November to April), the olive-green people lavished loads of money and resources to fix up the hotels damaged in Cayería norte, in record time. ” Most of the ETECSA linesmen and those from the electric company was sent to the keys. They are a priority, although there aren’t any tourists there as they were evacuated to Veradero. But those hotels are an important part of the hard currency earning money box”, explains a telecoms engineer.
Not too far away from the key is a very different situation. From Yaguajay, in Sancti Spiritus, a province 220 miles east of Havana, Sergio, who lives there describes over the phone that “the desolation is terrible, as if the fat madman of North Korea had fired one of his missiles. Eight out of every ten houses had their roofs damaged or their walls fell down. Nearly sixty were flattened, with just the foundations left”.
It’s not very different in Esmeralda, Camagüey. In Adelante, the local newspaper, the journalist Enrique Atiénzar says that Irma dealt brutally with Esmeralda. In Moscú, the damage was severe. Of the over 200 houses, mostly rustic, only ten survived the over 125 mile per hour winds. Lyam, 12 years old, doesn’t enjoy a hurricane going past, but says that 16 neighbours were sheltered in his grandmother’s house. The next day, Lyam’s grandmother sat down in the doorway and started to cry. “Not for me, but for the neighbours”.
In Cuba the real headache for the man in the street comes in the days following a tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane going by. You can just imagine what it’s like when it’s a hurricane like Irma, touching land in Cayería norte as a Category 5, then dropped to a 4 and then a 3 and then on the way to Florida went back up to a 4.
In the length and breadth of the island, thousands of families are living in shelters, having lost their homes because of a hurricane or other natural disaster. Some wait for twenty years for the state to provide them with a home. Others wait for help buying materials so they can repair their houses by themselves.
Omar, living in Lawton, knows very well what it’s like waiting for the government to help. “My house could fall down at any time”, he says with a sad face. For a Habanero, who likes salsa music, Olga Guillot boleros, and knocking back a few cheap rums with his friends, it hasn’t been much of a party lately.
Photo: The state in which the old Hotel Cosmopolita de Camajuaní has been left by hurricane Irma in Villa Clara a province 290 km east of Havana, going by the Autopista Nacional. Built in 1918, the hotel was included in the tourism development plan to liven up the hotel trade in Villa Clara. Taken from “Los límites de la alucinación”, a report by Lianet Fleites in Periodismo de Barrio, September 12th 2017.
Translated by GH