Matthew and Oblivion Join Forces Against La Máquina in Guantanamo / 14ymedio, Yunier Reyes

Outskirts of Baracoa after Hurricane Matthew. (EFE)
Outskirts of Baracoa after Hurricane Matthew. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yunier Reyes, Baracoa, 7 October 2016 – “There is not a single roof here that the wind didn’t take,” commented Jorge Luis, a villager of La Máquina, one of the poorest areas of Cuba in the territory of Maisí, Guantanamo. At roughly 900 feet above sea level, the residents of the remote place say that since the passing of Hurricane Matthew the first government aid still hasn’t reached the area.

“We hid in the bathroom of the house,” recalls this farmer who was born in the easternmost point of the island and says he has never having seen anything like what happened during Tuesday night. “Everything was doubled over with the wind and the pressure was so strong that I could hardly swallow my own saliva,” he explains. “It was more than six hours that we couldn’t even move,” he recalls with fear. continue reading

The locals have always looked enviously at neighboring Baracoa. “They at least have tourists coming, who leave behind some money, but here nobody passes. Who is going to be interested in seeing this town where there is nothing?” asks Jorge Luis’s eldest son, who helps his father farm. The young man believes that “donations will rain down” on the larger town, but “from there to here is a long way.”

The dangerous stretch of road linking Cajobabo with La Máquina and Punta de Maisí is not passable at the moment for cars, but entire families have dared to make their way along it, struggling to get around the rocks and chunks of concrete and asphalt that now mark the damaged road. They go to nearby villages in search of food, on a walk that must be made in haste.

Jorge Luis made a stretch of the journey on Thursday afternoon with an empty sack over his shoulder. “I have to get some food because we already ran out,” he says. At the home of some of his cousins they gave him some sweet potatoes and a piece of salt pork. “We will be surviving with this until they begin to distribute food,” he says.

“The coffee is very affected,” says the farmer, and telephone communications and electrical service are still not working, but the latter two problems do not seem to worry Jorge Luis very much. “We have always lived with very little. In my house we can only turn on a light bulb occasionally because the voltage has always been very low.”

La Máquina’s first sidewalks were poured last year and “they are already deteriorated because the builders stole some of the materials,” explained the Guantanameran. With Matthew’s rains the whole place was turned into a quagmire only navigable in rubber boots. Children travel on the shoulders of their parents and bicycles can barely advance through the mud.

In Punta Caleta, the site where Matthew touched down on the island, “there’s nothing left even to tie a goat to,” the farmer – who also has relatives in the area – says sarcastically. “Even the trees were uprooted.” The bridges in the region are also seriously damaged, which is preventing the arrival of maintenance brigades and food supplies.

Intense rains have damaged the region and the Rio Seco – Dry River – has belied its name and flooded to the point that the villages in the area are incommunicado. “The rains failed us, but not now, really, not now,” reflects Jorge Luis, as he works his way around the obstacles toward the town of Cajobabo. On both sides of what was once a highway the palms are pressed flat against the ground as if a giant had passed over them.

Baracoa, The Face Of Disaster / 14ymedio, Yunier Reyes

Hurricane Matthew left serious damage in Cuba at the eastern end of the island, with total and partial collapses of houses, electricity poles and roads completely cut off. (EFE)
Hurricane Matthew left serious damage in Cuba at the eastern end of the island, with total and partial collapses of houses, electricity poles and roads completely cut off. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yunier Reyes, 6 October 2016 — Baracoa has taken a pounding. Everywhere you look roofs have blown off and the residents are trying to save any pieces of their homes that can be reused. They walk over the mounds of bricks, climb over the bits of stairs that no longer lead anywhere, and salvage the window frames that were once set into walls. The city looks like a ruin, but the growing roar of survival persists.

Hurricane Matthew has already traveled far from Cuba’s eastern tip, although the passage of this unwanted visitor will linger for years in the memories of Baracoans. “I’m looking for the photo of my grandfather that was in the living room,” says Cira, 58, a resident who on Tuesday collected the little she had and went to the house of some relatives who had a “sturdy roof” to face the strong winds. continue reading

The woman has now returned to the place where her home was, to find barely the outline of the foundations. “My room was here,” she says, and two steps further on, under a mountain of debris the pure white toilet peaks out. She lost everything: her television, mattress, coffeemaker, a mahogany table she inherited from her mother and the portrait of her grandfather that she used to put “flowers in front of every day.”

Cira’s story is not the most serious. In Baracoa everyone has been touched by the misfortune. Luisito, age 8, can’t find his dog, which he called for all Wednesday afternoon before returning to the house of some cousins where his family took shelter; by the end of the day he hadn’t seen the dog’s tail nor its white back anywhere. “I’m sure he hid, he’s very smart,” his mother said to comfort him.

No deaths have been reported in the wake of the devastating hurricane, but the city looks like a corpse. The firefighters and military brigades that are arriving advise the residents to stay away from the wreckage and be careful around shards of metal and the broken boards and glass all over the ground. But few heed them.

They are in a battle against the clock. They want to retrieve all the materials they can for the partial or total reconstruction of their homes. They fear that when the area is militarized they’ll be moved far from their homes and will be unable to continue salvaging their personal belongings that remain dispersed along the ground.

People console themselves knowing that the situation is even more serious in other parts of Guantanamo province, which no one has been able to get to yet. The road to Maisi is blocked by trees and chunks of asphalt torn out of the higheway. Hardly anything is known about what happened to “the crocodile’s snout” – the easternmost point of the island.

The rivers are still swollen and in the area of San Antonio del Sur the roads are torn up and the lines in front of the bakery are growing. The more farsighted, who managed to buy some food before the beginning of the first gusts of Matthew, declare they have nothing left. “There isn’t much to eat,” complained a woman near the state store, one of the few in the whole town with an electric generator.

On the outskirts of Baracoa the air is filled with the buzz of chainsaws from a technical military brigade, intent on trying to break through to the villages that have been cut off. The phone lines are cut and cellphones can’t be recharged because of the lack of electricity.

Nobody knows anything about what happened to the residents of Purialess, a small town in the area. There is no communication by landlines or cellphones and radio and television signals don’t reach them. The huge repeater antenna of Radiocuba is deaf and mute, having falling on a roof.

One of the worst scenarios is in the section between Bagá and the area known as La Curva del Sapo – the curve of the toad. Electricity pylons have collapsed and the ground is covered with a carpet of banana plants that did not withstand the winds. The tomato fields are damaged and concern about a food shortage is widespread.

The greatest drama falls on those who have completely lost their homes. This Wednesday night some didn’t want to move from the place where they once loved, slept and cooked. The walls and the roof are gone, but “this is my home,” says Cira, flashlight in hand, as she continues to search for the photo of her grandfather.

First Light of Dawn Finds Cuban city of Baracoa Desolated and in Ruins / 14ymedio, Yunier Reyes

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yunier Reyes, Baracoa, Cuba, 5 October 2016 – A grief-stricken Christopher Columbus – who first touched land in the Americas in this place – observes the chaos that emerges with the first rays of the sun in Barancoa. The sculpture of the sailor stands a few yards from the sea and shows the marks of having confronted the winds of Hurricane Matthew on Tuesday night. Columbus has stood up to this new and harrowing voyage, but the same cannot be said for the city that unfolds before his eyes.

People come out into the streets with tear-filled eyes and deep despair. A resident holds her head in her hands while looking at the remains of her modest house some 200 years from the sea. “Mi’jo (my son) this is going to take me the rest of my life to rebuild,” she says, to the few residents who have dared to venture forth this early in the morning. continue reading

A Tweet from National Geographic photographer and storm chaser Mike Theiss
A Tweet from National Geographic photographer and storm chaser Mike Theiss

In Baracoa the ground is covered with branches, the seafront Malecon is missing pieces that have come down several yards away, the roof of the Primada Vision telecommunications building has flown off in several pieces and its metal tiles litter the streets. The electrical wires are down and entangled in the columns of houses that were once standing.

A few people rummage here and there to rescue pieces of wood, nails and tiles that will allow them to rebuild their lost roofs. The inhabitants of the area have learned long since that state help to the victims will be too late, plagued with the “diversion” of resources, and frequently there won’t be enough for everyone. For now, they try to do whatever they can for themselves.

“If they don’t deliver food quickly, I don’t know what is going to happen,” complains a young man who has improvised a rod with a metal hook on the end as he digs through the wreckage in search of “planks to cover the little room.” He says he has two small children who are sheltering with his wife at a nearby school, but he did not want to go. “I couldn’t leave the house unattended, someone had to stay to keep an eye on the refrigerator.”

The city’s central park is a sequence of fallen trees, like soldiers killed in a battle with the gusts of the hurricane that topped 130 miles per hour. The drugstores like El Turey also lost part of their roofs and even the houses under construction have seen their few walls, raised with so much effort by their owners, collapse.

For Baracoa’s residents this has been the longest night in memory. Many barricaded themselves in their homes with a few cans of food and some crackers to resist Matthew’s onslaught. High waves covered the Malecon starting in the afternoon and in the coastal areas few dared to stay in their homes for fear that the sea, in addition to taking all their belongings, would also take their lives.

The most stubborn refused to move from their homes and in the midst of strong winds the firefighters had to rescue several families trapped in partially collapsed buildings.

Official figures say that 749 homes have been affected by flooding, four of them completely destroyed and nine partially destroyed. More than 38,000 people were evacuated, the majority of them to the homes of family or friends.

The legendary hotel La Rusa lost its roof, and a part of its structure is seriously damaged. The emblematic lodging is in ruins this morning, barely standing. The Castillo Hotel suffered structural damage due to the onslaught of the winds.

Saying goodbye to the few belongings the inhabitants of this poor city possess has been very difficult for many. You can take almost nothing with you to the shelters and people worry about the mattress left at the mercy of the rains and possible thieves, those ne’er-do-wells who prey on natural disasters.

When the sun set, you couldn’t even see your hands in front of your face. Like a ghost town, Baracoa was plunged into shadows, crossed by howling winds and with no connections to the rest of the island. The phones were cut, electricity stopped flowing and prayers rose asking that everything would pass “quickly and without deaths.”

Just two months ago Baracoa celebrated the 505th anniversary of the foundations of its first villa. Today, they are facing the challenge of rebuilding it.