Baracoa Struggles to Survive Hurricane Matthew

Local authorities said in March 2017 that 85% of all these damages had been resolved.(14ymedio)

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14ymedio, Ignacio de la Paz, Baracoa, 2 March 2018 — The darkness envelops Baracoa as the bus arrives at the main station. Despite the power outage, a swarm of people approaches to offer the new arrivals rooms for rent and taxis.

Before arriving at the terminal, the vehicle loaded with tourists must avoid the bumps of the road, several areas in danger of landslides, and animals that roam loose, before arriving at the terminal. The poor access conditions have affected the area for some time, but the passage of Hurricane Matthew a year and five months ago worsened the situation.

With the arrival of the group of visitors there is also some relief for the inhabitants of a tourism center that suffered a blow to its infrastructure, with the effects of the coastal floods and the winds of more than 120 miles per hour that ravaged the city that night of October 4, 2016.

“We lost a lot of tourism not only because of the hurricane, but because the Americans are gone,” Candita, who owns a house with two rooms for rent, tells 14ymedio. “Some are still arriving but those who come are clients with little money,” she complains.

A few yards from Candita’s house, a private cafeteria offers pizzas and sandwiches as well as coconut candy, a typical dish of the region. “Many businesses have closed,” says an employee of the place. “The problem is the supply, since sometimes there is pizza and sometimes there isn’t; maintaining service with the unreliability of supplies is very difficult.”

The ups and downs occur, she says, because many private producers in the area have not yet recovered from the crop and livestock loses caused by the hurricane. The employee explains that before the storm it was easy to get pork in the city but now “you have to sleep in line to buy a few pounds.”

The majority of tourists who choose Baracoa stay within the area of rental houses, the historic center and colonial buildings, but Baracoa has another face less known and that has not been rebuilt as quickly as the state hotels, such as the legendary La Rusa accommodation which was very damaged on the morning of the storm.

In the province of Guantanamo alone, Matthew left in its path material losses amounting to 1.584 billion Cuban pesos (CUP), in addition to more than 38,000 damaged homes and severe problems in food production, electrical service and water supplies.

In Baracoa, 24,104 houses, of the approximately 27,000 in this city of 81,700 people, were affected. In addition, 500 properties of state agencies suffered damages.

Local authorities claimed in March 2017 that 85% of all these damages had been resolved, but many still remain in the coastal area and in buildings along the malecon.

The beach is no longer a place of relaxation where dozens of people went every day and the sports field is still devastated. In several buildings near the sea you can hear the sounds of the hammers of those who come to take bricks and rebar from houses that will not be lived in again.

Although the Government approved a bonus of 50% of the value of construction materials and facilitated access to bank loans and subsidies for those who partially or totally lost their homes, residents complain of delays in supplies, the lack of some indispensable products (such as steel), and their poor quality.

Local industries can not cope with the production of construction blocks and other aggregates, which are obtained from materials collected in surface quarries. As of the middle of last year the banks had only approved about 4,000 loans with low interest rates, a tiny share of those needed for people who need financial support.

Julia, 60, is another of the many people who have not been able to restore even a single roof tile. “I have been staying with my family in a school on the Toa River since the hurricane happened,” she tells 14ymedio.

For those who lost their homes and are still housed in state facilities, the authorities are building a community in Paso Cuba, in the mountains, near La Farola. However, most of the victims are not satisfied with the idea because before the hurricane they lived close to the sea. Now, under the so-called “Life Task” —  a set of actions that the Government is carrying out to minimize the effects of climate change on the island — the reconstruction of those houses near the coast has been prohibited.

“We have written several letters and raised the issue with the authorities and they tell us that the buildings on the coast can not be rebuilt,” laments Julia, whose life revolved around the sea, from which many residents take their livelihood. Fishing, from which they make a living by selling their catch to private restaurants in the area and also use for their own consumption, is the main source of income for countless families in Baracoa.

“I’m not going to leave the shelter,” insists Julia, who fears losing any chance of returning to live near the sea if she moves into the new community.

Meanwhile, numerous buildings such as bodegas, shops and even the Cabacú Casa de la Cultura and its Catholic church are still in ruins. The church, of which only some walls remain, has become a public urinal and garbage dump.

“It was already in bad condition and with the hurricane it finished falling down,” says Vivian, the secretary of the city’s bishopric, who explains that the church can not be rebuilt in the absence of its primary manager.

“Since Monsignor Wilfredo Pino, who was very active, was sent to the diocese of Camagüey, the bishopric has remained vacant and we do not know when it will be covered,” she says. The faithful of the community “meet in private houses of worship to celebrate the Mass,” she adds.

“This city has not been the same since,” says a neighbor who has approached the bishopric to look for donated medicines. “We have been very badly off economically, with fewer tourists, less money and no bishop.”


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