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.

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.