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!