3 Cheers for Cuba’s Hurricane Preparedness

I’ve been interviewed by Canadian media in advance of at least 2 hurricanes. It’s funny they have never reached out to me after a storm has passed to check and see how things went, or how we were recovering, but perhaps that’s a little less exciting for news-followers. So I do hope this post won’t bore most of you, with that in mind. Growing up in Prince Edward Island, Canada, hurricanes were something I’d never experienced prior to living in the Caribbean. But having spent my entire adult life in Cuba, I’ve learned quite a bit about how to be prepared for the occasional wrath Mother Nature metes out in this part of the world. Back in 1993 my two brothers began our Cuban adventure travel business by boarding a commercial Cuban ship in Halifax with a container load of bicycles, parts & accessories bound for the port of Havana. They hit some bad weather along the way and what was supposed to be a 5-day trip turned into a 2-week journey. US laws wouldn’t let the commercial ship of Cuban registry take shelter in any of their ports, so they were forced to continue the journey south while taking a beating from waves in the Atlantic along the way. Cars on the deck were smashing against containers of lard which in turn broke loose and began to tear apart the ship’s gunnels. One of my brothers was vomiting on the deck as the captain was calling for everyone to don life jackets; meanwhile my younger (not wiser) brother was capturing the whole scene with a vhs video recorder. I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the danger they were in, but thankfully the ship did not break apart, they eventually made it to safe harbor in Havana, and so began our adventures in Cuba.

In 1994 I was living on the coast in Marea del Portillo in Granma province when there was a distant threat of a hurricane possibly headed for the area. One thing about hurricanes is they can be unpredictable – they can gain/lose force and even change directions depending on other weather factors. But Cuba’s government’s 4-step preparedness plan doesn’t leave anything to chance. They went to the work and expense of evacuating the entire resort, busing guests / representatives and even a full complement of staff to Bayamo for a couple of nights while the weather situation was monitored. In the end, the storm dissipated and we all returned to the hotel without further adieu. But the incident gave me a very up-close and personal picture of how methodical and prepared Cuban authorities are to face these kinds of disasters, acting several days in advance to take preventive measures first to preserve human life for those living in any areas identified as vulnerable to coastal flooding, etc. and then attention is paid to any resources that can be saved with the remaining time. The civil defense in Cuba has the authority to take over state hospitals, hotels, schools and other facilities to turn them into emergency refuges. Medical staff and facilities are prepared, announcements are regularly made to the population on how to prepare, and citizens are usually working like busy ants beforehand removing potential projectiles, storing water, charging batteries, and securing all that needs attention before heavy winds and rain force them indoors until the storm has dissipated. School children are taught how to prepare for hurricanes from the time they are very young.

Many of you who have never experienced a hurricane before assume the most dangerous time is during the storm. But quite often the after-effects can be just as deadly, including storm surges, or in the case of some countries where clean-up is less than efficient, you may find standing water or debris can lead to breeding of mosquitos and the spreading of diseases such as dengue or zika. In Cuba, we have a public health system in place which has widespread reach. Inspectors regularly knock on all doors to check water deposits. They correct bad practices such as flower pot bases where water can collect, vases with standing water, they sprinkle anti-mosquito products into any puddles that may form in your patio / around your house, even in some cisterns. The covers for water barrels must be hermetic or you risk a fine. You’ll often see aerial fumigation for mosquitos around certain hotel zones. Or trucks pumping out billows of smoke will sometimes crawl the streets, all in an effort to ensure mosquito populations do not thrive, and that the propagation of the illnesses they can spread is limited.

In the fall of 2001 my brother & sister and I spent several days preparing food for my husband’s birthday party. It was our first year of marriage and we went a little overboard. Only about a dozen guests braved the night of the party as everyone else was holed up at home awaiting Hurricane Michelle. With the power out for 4-5 days afterwards and no backup generator, we had a lot of food to get rid of before it spoiled. The nursing home residents across the street were the recipients of that spectacular donation. We had limited water storage capacity at that house, so were rationing water from Day 1, making sure you only flushed when absolutely necessary. Once the water on roof tanks was depleted, then it was buckets from the small cistern until that ran out. Thankfully, being early November, temperatures were moderate and you could actually sleep at night. Everyone in Cuba remembers Hurricane Ivan from 2004, and I can still picture Fidel questioning Cuba’s weather guru Dr. Jose Rubiera on the nightly news. Fidel kept pressing him, telling him that while the trajectory was that it was going to hit Cuba’s westernmost tip, that it was still possible that it could be drawn off of the coast. I personally thought Dr. Rubiera was respectfully humoring him, saying that while it was possible, it was not likely. When Fidel’s “prediction” came true, well the believers in Cuba were all over that the next day, like it was divine intervention. Fidel was the chosen one again, just like when the white dove landed on his shoulder, a sign for Santeria followers.

I can’t remember if it was during Hurricane Ike or Gustav in 2008, but we’d recently moved into the new house we built just east of Havana, perched on a hill above the water. Cuba turns off the power in advance of the storm so that citizens aren’t risking personal injury or damage to household appliances by downed cables. Without electricity, it can get warm at night in your house, so I decided to sleep on the floor of the living room where a nice breeze was coming in from below the front double doors. It was quite comfortable until the plywood my husband had tied to the inside of the iron bars outside blew in the two inner wooden & glass doors, and the plywood flew into the living room, narrowly missing me where I was sleeping. My husband rushed out and somehow between the two of us we managed to get the doors shut again and then we waited out the rest of the storm. Lesson for next time: tie that plywood to the outside, not the inside of the bars.

Hurricane Irma caught me in Canada attending to some family business. I briefly considered rushing back to Cuba, as we’ve never spent a hurricane apart in 17 years together. But then I re-thought the wisdom of that plan. Several years ago we purchased a backup generator. Our huge cistern has ample water supply, for a month without even rationing for the two of us. We had just switched our propane tanks, so had ample supply of that on hand to cook with. Our house is made of bricks & mortar and is as solid as a rock. No temporary / light roof or anything that would represent a danger to him. Last summer I imported some fabulous Stihl garden tools including an electric chainsaw. My husband was going to be fine, probably the envy of the neighborhood in fact. So I decided to stay in Canada as I would be more helpful there to clients whose plans were going to be altered by the weather. I would have uninterrupted telephone and internet access, which I couldn’t be sure would be the case for my husband in Cuba. So I reminded him (twice, in fact, that doesn’t count as nagging, right?) to stock up on some gas for the generator and agreed I would call him on Sunday to check in. The landline was down, but his cell phone was operating. And all we lost was a cover to one of our water tanks, which he wrongly assumed had been tied down before the storm. He used the chainsaw to trim some trees on our block, so noone’s glass windows were damaged. Our handyman had a date with a tetra pak of rum during the storm so he hadn’t gotten around to hooking up the generator yet, but the gas had been purchased, so that was imminent. He ended up being able to pump water to the neighbors’ roofs as well as ours and kept everyone’s phones & laptops charged by turning the generator on for a couple of hours at a time. We didn’t even experience any food spoilage as the generator’s intermittent use was enough to keep the fridge & freezer cool.

We’ve been trying to set some time apart for a short vacation ourselves this year in low season and I was anxious to get back to Cuba. My sister was questioning the wisdom of that decision after some of the international coverage she’d seen after Irma departed Cuba. But the areas I’d seen in Havana were those that are always prone to flooding, and I wasn’t surprised by much of the footage that made it to our news sources in Canada. Our lights in Old Havana were back on within 2 days. At home in Mirador de Marbella after 3 days. So on Friday I landed back in Havana and can confirm myself that life is truly returning to normal here. Yes, there were quite a few uprooted trees and some remain to be removed from sidewalks (we even saw a huge one still leaning against a house), but the major cleanup has already taken place. The majority of electrical services have been restored. The hardest-hit provinces were Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara, and recovery efforts there will be delayed a little longer as some of their infrastructure will take more time to repair. We took a motorcycle trip to Artemisa on Sunday with friends. The avocado season was cut short here – people were giving avocados away so that they didn’t rot after falling off of trees. By the way, Cuban avocadoes are spectacular, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying them. The tunnel to 5th Avenue, which had flooded to its roof, has re-opened. The tunnel to Eastern Havana is not open yet, so we’re taking the ring around the port to get to work every morning still. That’s a bit of an inconvenience, but certainly not a deal-breaker.

We’ve had friends from Miami visit as recently as yesterday and they report that there are still some areas in their city awaiting the return of electrical services after Irma, which struck there with less intensity than in Cuba. Status updates from our ground handlers and tourism/hotel operators report that with the exception of Cayo Coco (which was hardest hit, and lost its airport), the large majority are already fully operational. The recovery of the causeways to Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria was exceptionally fast. The Malecon remains closed while they repair some areas of the sea wall that were damaged. But all the flooding has receded. From some of the images accompanying international reports on Irma in Cuba that are still being released, you might be led to believe otherwise. Venezuela sent aid, and in record time. Yesterday we saw a boat of supplies from the Dominican Republic, and this morning we jokingly said that it may have to return with supplies donated from Cuba after Hurricane Maria. Cuba has sent over 700 doctors to neighboring islands in the wake of the hurricane. The solidarity of sister nations in this region is commendable. Especially when some of the largest contributors to climate change are our industrial neighbors to the north, who do not wish to recognize their role and social responsibility.

Once again, in the face of adversity, Cuba has risen to the occasion and taken extraordinary measures to protect its citizens, visitors and resources, while at the same time showing great concern and committment to its history of international solidarity and humanitarian gestures. Organization, discipline, and preparedness mean that we are less likely to die during or after a hurricane in Cuba than our neighbors to the north. To the tireless electrical and telephone workers, public health personnel and military organizers who go to great lengths to alleviate discomfort during and once the storm has passed, our sincere thanks.

For those of you considering travel to Cuba anytime soon, it’s highly encouraged. It’s one of the best ways to offer your support and solidarity to a country whose economy increasingly relies on the tourism sector. Cuban officials are taking recovery efforts very seriously, and they’ve made extraordinary headway already. Our ground handler is taking a group of travel company supervisors and diplomats to Varadero this weekend so they can see the recovery efforts for themselves first-hand. Bank accounts have been set up for anyone wishing to make donations to the recovery efforts, as the recovery of infrastructure is undeniably expensive. Just this morning we heard that a Dutch bank refused to send a EUR wire transfer donation to Cuba, citing the US blockade. This is very disheartening, as the US government’s influence is clearly overextending its reach when we’re not even talking about a transaction in US funds. Facebook temporarily blocked Mariela Castro’s account when she published the bank account information for potential donors, and later apologied for the the mistake. Cuba calls the blockade “genocide”, and while that term is shocking and even unbelievable to some, what else would you call it? Certainly not a humanitarian gesture. To end on a positive note, three cheers for Cuba. Despite much hardship and some formidable challenges, you continue to rise to the most difficult of occasions and consistently put the safety and well-being of your population in the forefront. Cuba va!

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Shark Diving + Hurricane Evacuation = Adventures Galore

One of the downfalls of operating your own business is a serious lack of vacation time. In our case, my husband and I try to steal a long weekend here or there, and a lot of our travel ends up being work-related. One of the few week-long vacations we took together was back in 2009 when we embarked on a shark diving holiday to the Jardines de la Reina off of Cuba’s south shore in the province of Ciego de Avila. We’ve been diving pretty much all over Cuba, but had always wanted to visit this destination, which a lot of the dive masters we know in Cuba call Cuba’s “dive mecca” due to its geographical location several hours offshore by boat, and its protected marine habitat. The biggest attraction for us was without a doubt the shark diving though. We’d never been diving with sharks before, and we were told that we’d sometimes even see up to several species of sharks in a single day. We ended up getting way more of an adventure than we’d bargained for.

We scheduled our holiday in late August, low season for our travel bookings and also to coincide with my birthday. We chose the Tortuga floating hotel for our accommodations – with a satellite WI-FI connection it meant that I wouldn’t be totally out of touch and could keep up with my daily emails via my laptop during down time. The evening prior to departure we saw on the local news that there was a hurricane warning for the south coast of Cuba and briefly debated whether to modify our plans. We ended up deciding to go forward with the plan as scheduled so the next morning at 04:00 we were boarding the collective transfer bus at the Armadores de Santander hotel in Havana. The Italian representative of the travel company Avalon that manages this destination, Luisa, was aboard the bus along with her daughter & husband who were vacationing in Cuba, and several other tourists from Germany, Argentina, the UK and Croatia who had been picked up at their respective Havana hotels. We asked Luisa what the word was on the pending weather situation, and she advised that so far no change in plans had been issued by local authorities, that the storm was still too far away to know which direction it would take, and until then all plans were full-steam ahead. Having been through many hurricanes and an evacuation or two already in Cuba, and knowing what a great advance advisory and evacuation system Cuba has in place, off we went to the Jucaro Port.

When we boarded the vessel that was to take our small group to the “Gardens of the Queen”, everyone was given the obligatory ham & cheese sandwich & soda for lunch, and then it was smooth and sunny sailing for several hours before we finally arrived to our home for the next week. The Tortuga is a 2-story barge that’s been converted into a floating hotel with 7 rooms with private baths, a sun deck, bar and restaurant. Pretty luxurious accommodations for somewhere several hours offshore in the middle of the mangroves. After we got settled in, tried some pizza, and met the local crocodile, we all headed off in the speedboats to get an overview of the dive zone. The captain of our boat spotted what appeared to be a tuna feeding frenzy, and immediately directed the boat to that location. He explained that it would be really likely that we’d see a whale shark, which feed on the tuna. And he didn’t disappoint. A German diver on our boat with over 1000 dives under his belt was freaking out because he’d never seen a whale shark before and he was wanting to jump overboard with no gear or anything. Thankfully, we could observe the large mammal pretty well from the boat as he swam under and around us. After that, we headed to a sandy beach where our dive master showed us some sea turtle nesting areas. Our dive master was a former employee of Cuba’s national aquarium, and had all kinds of interesting information to share.

Arriving back to the lodge, we got showered and ready for dinner, then as we headed downstairs to the dining room we began to suspect that the idyllic vacation was about to come to an end before we ever really even got started. We saw the Avalon staff quietly convening with the boat captains in a corner by the bar and knew that they had probably received the evacuation order from the local authorities. Over dinner in the restaurant, they shared the news and the plan that they’d agreed upon. The coast guard’s orders were to return to the mainland, but the captain was being cautious and indicated that he did not want to make the crossing at night, but would prefer to wait for first light to head back to Jucaro. So after a very enjoyable meal, all the tourists headed to bed while the Avalon staff dismantled a lot of equipment, and stored everything away that could be stowed out of potential harm’s way.

At 4 a.m. everyone got a wakeup call and we were provided with minimal breakfast provisions. My husband & I took some lemons to smell, hoping to ward off seasickness as the water was fairly choppy by then. Everyone, including all staff, was evacuated from the area in two vessels. The return crossing took about twice as long as the trip over, and more than a few people succumbed to nausea on the way back. An Argentinian lady was positively green, and didn’t notice that she’d placed her bag full of library books right under a window where water would occasionally enter as we were hit with waves. When we finally made it back to Jucaro, I thought the captain deserved a medal for getting everyone back safely under less than ideal seas. The local press was there to greet us before we made our way to the Ciego de Avila hotel to wait out the storm, which was expected to enter sometime after nightfall. The Argentinian woman realized at some point that she left her wet library books behind on the bus that took us to the hotel. Luisa gave her the bus driver’s contact information, but was mostly focused on accommodating guests as best as possible at the hotel and maintaining contact with the coast guard to be current on the weather situation.

The storm ended up passing with very little force, and the evacuation only ended up being for two nights. In the meantime my husband & I explored around Ciego de Avila a bit, eating pork sandwiches in the street and shopping for odds & ends in the local stores. Our philosophy is that you might as well make the best of a situation when things don’t go quite as planned. It’s nobody’s fault the weather went afoul, and the evacuation was government-ordered far enough in advance that everyone’s safety was secured. In the end, everyone was getting anxious to get on with the dive holiday, and on the second morning of the evacuation Luisa asked everyone to stay close to the lobby for any new developments that were informed by the coast guard. We finally got the order to head back to JDR, and everyone boarded the bus. Except the Argentinian lady who was still complaining about her misplaced library books, and wondering why everyone else but her had been informed about the return. Well, perhaps because everyone else except her was following Luisa’s instructions to be in the lobby?! On the bus again, one of the English girls had asked Luisa for a Gravol while we were in the lobby so Luisa handed it to her on the bus so that it would take effect in time for the crossing. Ms. Argentina had something negative to say about that too because she thought Luisa should have given Gravol to everyone (even if they’d not asked for them). She was definitely the rotten apple in the bunch, but rather than allow her to continue trying to spoil everyone else’s holiday I told her that she’d better zip it…or else! I don’t think I heard a peep from her the rest of the trip. My precious vacation time was definitely not going to be jeapordized by an “imperfecta”, as they say here.

On the return trip we went up to the top deck and about halfway over saw dolphins swimming beside our boat. Luisa advised us that she was going to be able to extend our stay by a day since the next group was coming in a day later, so we were really happy about not losing any dive time. All of a sudden, the captain started shouting orders and we realized that the boat was taking on water. He radioed ahead to JDR to send out the speedboats, and everyone was asked to put on their lifevest. It’s funny that I never felt at all in danger, but was concerned about my laptop and cell phone, and asked my husband to make sure they were as high up on the boat as possible… I remember chuckling at Luisa’s daughter who had fished out her mask and fins and was ready to swim to shore if need be. In the end, it was simply a hose that had disconnected and was rapidly reinstalled by the resourceful crew. The speedboats ended up just escorting us back to the Tortuga, rather than really having to rescue us from a sinking ship. But it was just one more adventure to add to what was already a story that we’d be telling our friends for years to come.

We saw lots of Caribbean reef sharks, silky sharks, and nurse sharks on our three daily dives. We also saw a host of other creatures including sea turtles, rays, and huge groupers among others. Between the morning dives we’d usually head to a sandy virgin beach where you could feed scraps of mango or bread to the “jutias” and iguanas. Abel & I would plug the dive master with all kinds of questions about what we’d seen or what he expected we’d see on the next immersion. We learned quite a bit about the invasive lion fish. Another of the dive masters on our boat occasionally brought fish to feed the sharks, and caught a tooth for me as it slipped out of a Caribbean reef shark’s jaws while feeding. There was a cute little remora fish following us (and more likely the sharks) for quite awhile. I remember looking forward to the tasty little pizza snacks that were always served piping hot at the bar/lounge area after our last dive. The Italian folks at Avalon had taught their kitchen staff some of the best techniques of Italian cuisine. Pasta dishes were also very well-done at dinner, and of course we were treated to a host of fresh seafood dishes. Desserts often consisted fresh seasonal fruit or Cuban flan. Especially welcome were juices and coffee delivered to our room before we even came down for breakfast in the morning.

All in all, despite the bumps in the road and the extra excitement brought on by adverse weather conditions, this is a trip that I’d love to repeat someday. The diverse group of people that embarked on the journey made for interesting conversations. Knowing that the unexpected excitement along the way was always backed up by a resourceful, responsible, and caring team to look after us all is what made it so memorable. Hats off to all the folks at Avalon for pulling it off. Our trip to Jardines de la Reina will be fondly remembered for many years to come.