Cuba specializes in hurricanes, but Charley was different. During two hours in the early morning of Aug. 13, Havana Province experienced its worst storm since 1915. Charley was only the fourth August hurricane of the past 200 years, according to Cuban meteorologists.

The hurricane caused terrible destruction and severe shortages of water and food affected Havana, Havana Province and Pinar del Rio, in the west. Electricity was out for up to four days in Havana. In Pinar del Rio, power was out for well over a week.

Cuba handles hurricanes differently, too. The nation’s civil defense forces are highly organized. Major preventative efforts go into effect prior to every storm and an intense recovery campaign begins after each hurricane. The population is fully mobilized.

Susan Hurlich, a journalist living in Cuba and close observer of the nation’s response to hurricanes, has generously provided most of the information used in this report.

In Havana Province, Charley destroyed 3,674 houses, damaged 37,650 more, over 200 schools, 39 daycare centers, thousands of electrical transformers and 36 high-tension towers. There were 200 km (124 miles) of fallen cable and 2,500 telephone poles. Plantain and banana crops, citrus and tobacco were devastated, as were 400 poultry facilities. An estimated 66,000 tons of fruit were on the ground.

Destruction was almost total — only 13 houses left standing — in two fishing communities on Cuba’s southern coast, El Cajio and Guanimar.

Electrical power for Pinar del Rio comes from a large generating plant in Mariel, 40 miles west of Havana. Hurricane Charley knocked down 10 of that facility’s high voltage towers. An absence of electricity resulted in 730,000 people without their usual sources of water.

In Havana itself, Charley destroyed 478 houses, severely damaged 2,976 more and downed 7,000 trees. Damage occurred to 21 hospitals, 51 polyclinics, 48 family doctor clinic-houses, 25 pharmacies, 105 daycare centers and 338 schools. Four people died and five were injured.

How does human life and limb get off so easily in such a storm? In fact, civil defense services had evacuated 215,532 people from Cuba’s southwestern coast — along with 159,000 animals.

Recovery efforts went into full swing immediately. Specialized electrical repair groups came in from all over the island, as well as 180 trucks to distribute water. Zinc sheets were brought into Havana Province for roof repairs.

For families who lost their homes, 200 pre-fabricated houses will be made available each month over the next 18-20 months. Farm help has come from Matanzas Province to prepare the soil and plant short-cycle crops and also speed up the planting of winter crops.

Over 27,600 people from all over Cuba, according to Hurlich, have been engaged in full-time recovery work in and around Havana, including over 5,000 who have been working 15- to 20-hour days with chainsaws, loaders, bulldozers, and hundreds of trucks.

In Pinar del Rio, electrical generators at sugar mills provided temporary power for pumps to provide water for several communities. Mobile generators kept hospitals going. In Havana over 1,500 men put electrical lines back up and resurrected 1,000 fallen lampposts. Repairs to health centers and schools have taken priority.

Hurlich reports that the Ministry of Work and Social Security has reassured people who lost work when they were evacuated that they will be paid for the days they were away. Thousands of Cubans mobilized for preventative and recovery work are receiving their regular salaries, as are workers staying home to repair or rebuild a house and those whose workplaces were destroyed. Mothers forced to stay home with their children because of damage to daycare centers will receive 60 percent of their usual salary.

The force behind Cuba’s hurricane response was not unlike that of a whirlwind, one with the power of Charley itself. The reams of data available on Charley and the recovery campaign, all readily available, testify to high levels of organization, planning and commitment.

Cuba’s friends in the world care too, as indicated by a deluge of offers of aid. Even the U.S. government got into the act. Its State Department on Aug. 13 expressed sympathy with the Cuban people and indicated that a donation of $50,000 was on the way, with strings attached, of course. The money had to go to people directly and not to agencies of the Cuban government. The Ministry of Foreign Relations characterized the U.S. proposal as cynical and insulting. Spokespersons contrasted that paltry sum with the $50 million that the U.S government will be forwarding to its agents inside Cuba for projects directed against the government there.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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