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Solidarity in the Storm: Cuba in the Wake of Hurricane Matthew

Havana.

I have been waiting all evening to send this preliminary report, 
hoping I would be able to have communication with the community
 of San Antonio del Sur in the southern coastal strip of
 Guantánamo Province that was also among the areas most 
severely hit by Hurricane Matthew in eastern Cuba.

But phone lines are down and loss of electricity means that cell
phones can’t be charged up – so for now I’m
 sending some information only about the town of Baracoa located 
on Guantánamo’s northern coast.

The four municipalities of Baracoa, Imías, Maisí and San
Antonio del Sur in Cuba’s eastern Guantánamo Province
are perhaps the areas that have been most strongly lashed by
 Hurricane Matthew. A lot of details and images are already
available in Internet – particularly in CubaDebate -
about the impact of this hurricane and in the very near future,  
we’ll know the exact dimensions of the destruction 
it’s left in its wake.

 For the moment, it is important to say that due to Cuba’s 
incredibly efficient and timely disaster preparedness, its broad
and well-organized Civil Defense system, the massive assistance
of a hurricane-wise and hurricane-experienced population and a
 deep commitment by the state to protect human life – 
first and foremost – there are no reported deaths.

Among
 other things, this is due to evacuation of people living in 
potentially dangerous areas, such as along the coast and in 
lowlands susceptible to flooding.

 In Guantánamo Province alone, 227,598 people were evacuated 
of whom 182,281 (80%) were provided shelter in the homes of 
family and friends – yet another example of Cuba’s
 characteristic solidarity in times of need – and 45,508 were
housed in state-provided and provisioned shelters.

To give you a more personal insight into the impact of the 
hurricane, I’d like to quote from a phone conversation I 
received earlier this evening (6pm) from Emercelda, a friend 
from Baracoa who surprisingly found her phone still working when
 she briefly returned to her ocean-sogged home – located just
across the street from the Malecón (seawall) – to see the 
extent of the damage. I’ve included some comments in 
brackets to provide additional information.

“There’s not so much wind right now but
 there’s still lots of rain. There’s lots of people
 walking on the streets right now, shaking their heads and 
extremely sad about the extent of the damage. Almost every home
 in Baracoa [where 50,000 of the municipality’s 80,000 
residents live] has lost either their entire roof or part of the 
roof. 

All the wooden houses have been flattened to the ground.

Lots of
 large tanks holding water on top of homes and other structures
 were knocked to the ground, even those full of water. [A 1,000-
litre tank weighs one ton.] This happened at our home as well.
 The waves reached the top of the house [two stories] and
 completely carried away our roof that was being held down with
 heavy sand bags.

 Even the solid homes suffered.

Along Calle Martí
[Baracoa’s main street] virtually all the homes that rent 
rooms to tourists lost their fronts – doors, windows,
 walls. Everything taken away by Matthew. Everything has been 
damaged or destroyed, even strong hotels. Hotel La Rusa lost its 
roofing tiles and we found its large sign in front of our home,
completely blown off! Hotel Porto Santo is gone. 

All the rooms are without a roof. Other hotels lost their doors
 and roofing tiles as well, even one of the newer ones being
 built in the city centre.

And in front of our house on the 
Malecón side, we found part of the children’s rides
 that were swept up by the winds from the children’s
 playground. [It’s about half a kilometre between their
 home and this particular playground.]

But people are most concerned about food. Some of the panaderias 
(bread shops) have been completely destroyed. The one we use has 
had its roof completely blown off. There’s nothing to 
cook with. The entire city is without electricity as all the 
electric posts have been knocked down, everywhere.
 There’s no gasoline. No one can use wood as everything is 
wet. 

Some people have a bit of kerosene but of course there’s 
nothing in the stores to buy and many stores are damaged. Just 
before the hurricane hit Cuba, stores were selling things like 
chicken and ice cream for very low prices as they had no 
freezers to store and protect them. The lines were so long to 
buy things that some doors got broken from the pressure!

For my
 family, I have a bit of kerosene which I’ve taken to my
 sister’s home, in the neighbourhood of Paraíso, where 
we’re staying.

 But she has no phone, and we can’t charge up my 
husband’s cell phone.

We’re also unable to get out
 of the city to see how my mother is doing, as there’s so 
much debris and the roads are impassable because of all the 
trees that have been knocked down, and there’s no 
gasoline anyway. I’ve heard her home has collapsed but we 
can’t find out anything for sure.

Everyone is feeling very isolated. La Farola [the main road over 
the mountains connecting Baracoa with the provincial capital of
 Guantánamo] is damaged and transport can’t pass. The 
bridge over the Toa River has been destroyed so there’s 
no communication with Moa. [This evening’s 8pm news said
 that of the 200-metre long bridge over the Toa River, connecting 
Baracoa on the northern coast with Moa in neighbouring
 Holguín Province, only 50 metres are still standing!]

Some
 people have heard on their radios that potable water and food is
 already being distributed to people in need in Santiago de Cuba,
 but nothing like this is yet happening here.

 Some electrical workers – linemen and others – who
 came to Baracoa before the hurricane hit have said it may be two 
weeks before the city’s electricity is repaired. They 
said the damage is so extensive it’ll have to be fixed
 house by house. [An advance group of over 800 workers from the 
country’s Electrical Union, UNE, coming from Cuba’s
 western provinces, have been in Sancti Spíritus Province
 since Monday, waiting to assist with recuperation in the eastern
 provinces as soon as the hurricane passed.]

Matthew was a Category 5 hurricane when it left Baracoa. It was
 stationary for two hours over Baracoa! With 260 km/hr winds.
 [Reported gusts reached 300 km/hr!] No one here has ever seen
 such a hurricane as this in Baracoa! It’s so sad to look 
at the surrounding mountains. It’s as if a huge chain was 
pulled over them and taken down all the trees! All the mountains
 are bare! [This is one of the most densely forested parts of
 Cuba!]

 But there are no deaths, no injuries. And we can be proud of 
that.”

As for the Southern Coastal Strip, though I haven’t yet
 been able to get direct information, I’ve already heard
 from friends in Havana who have family living in San Antonio del
 Sur. In this small community alone, some 60 homes have been 
completely destroyed and over 100 others partially destroyed.

 The nearby Valle de Caujerí, a super productive valley that
 is the bread basket for this region as well as providing foods 
for the city of Guantánamo, was completely flooded and lost
 much of its productive crops.

The Sabanalamar River, which passes
through the town of San Antonio del Sur before entering the sea, 
quickly flooded its banks. 

In the area of Bate Bate, located to the west of San Antonio del
 Sur in the same municipality, some 7 km of road were completely
 destroyed. This is the same road that goes over La Farola and
 ultimately connects with Baracoa. However, a temporary passage
way was quickly prepared and the town of San Antonio del Sur is 
now connected with the provincial capital.

Tomorrow I should be receiving more news from Baracoa as
 Emercelda told me there are several other people who want to
 call me, plus try to find a working computer with enough battery 
power to send some images. As soon as I get more information,
 I’ll prepare another little report.

This report originally appeared on CubaNews.

More articles by:

Susana Hurlich lives in Havana.

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