Cuba: in the eye of Ike

HAVANA -- All day we've been increasingly getting the 'hurricane sky.” That's when the sky gets full of darkening clouds that appear as if you're looking at the bottom of a huge drum top, and they move in an immense counterclockwise circle. We've also been getting increasingly stronger wind gusts although nothing really serious yet. And it's started to rain more stop start stop start but with the feeling that it'll eventually not stop until Ike passes north of Cuba.

The other weather forecaster I have here in my house are my two cats, one of whom is getting increasingly more anxious, going outside to look up at the sky and then crying worriedly. It's the change in atmospheric pressure that he feels and he doesn't like it. It's the same as when horses start to panic and want to run when they feel the deep tremous in the ground from an imminent earthquake, even if everything is appearing on the surface.

These two back-to-back hurricanes, Gustav and Ike, have been firsts in many way.

A first: two category 4 hurricanes battering Cuba within a very short time. Never before has the country been hit by such strong hurricanes back-to-back.

A first: the extent of penetration of the sea in Baracoa, up to six blocks, something which has never happened before.

A first: Las Tunas evacuated more people than it's ever done in its history.

A first: Isla de la Juventud and Pinar del Rio passing from the Information Phase directly to the Alarm Phase, without going through the Alert Phase. This has never happened before in Cuba and relates to a certain unpredictability of Ike on the southern coast of Cuba.

As of 8p.m., Ike is a category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 130 kph. The gusts are going up to some 200 kph though, so it's still a serious hurricane. The central pressure if 966 and it's moving 20 kph in a west to a westnorthwest direction. The eye is skimming the southern coast of Cuba, meaning that there's a large penetration into Cuban territory of winds and gusts of hurricane force, and the southern coast is having serious penetrations and floods. It's almost perfectly round and it's immense. Right now it's about 55 km east of Cienfuegos but its strong rain and wind 'rings' - and don't forget, it has two! which is another unusual feature - extend a significant distance beyond the northern side of the island and the eastern part of the country - the Oriente - up through Santiago de Cuba is still getting rain - plus we're already getting Ike-related rains well to the west of where it is presently located.

But because the eye is skimming the coast, this impedes it from strengthening, at the moment, much beyond a category 1 hurricane. If, however, it distances itself just a bit from the coast, it'll immediately start getting stronger.

And the serious thing about Ike is the rains, which are heaviest BEHIND the eye, in other words, to Ike's west. And Cuba has already had lots of rain first from Fay, and then from Gustav, and now with Ike being the wettest of all three, there's very serious concerns - and constant alerts - about heavy flooding and land slides in the entire Escambray mountain range in the southern part of the provinces of Villa Clara to Cienfuegos to Sancti Spiritus.

Tuesday, it'll be in the southern coast of Matanzas. That will be about the time that we'll know more clearly what part of western Cuba - the Occidente - will have the 'pleasure' of its eye. At the moment, it could be anywhere from western Pinar del Rio to the eastern side of Provincia Habana, or even over the city of Habana itself. Just don't know at the moment. But whether it does or doesn't, for the city of Habana and the Occidente in general, the most difficult time will be from mid-day tomorrow, Tuesday, into tomorrow night.

This morning, thirteen of Cuba's fourteen provinces were in the Alarm Phase, with the Isla (a special municipality, as you know, rather than a province) and the province of Pinar del Rio being in the Information Phase. Now the latter two are in the Alarm Phase. I don't know if this is another 'first', that is, that the entire country, every province, has been in the Alarm Phase during the same hurricane.

As well, for the Isla and Pinar del Rio, the Alarm Phase has also meant a full suspension, for the moment, of recuperation efforts, with a focus on protecting the work done to date and ensuring the protection of the material resources that have been sent there to date.

While all this is going on, we're already starting to get preliminary reports from Oriente about some of the damage caused by Ike, and in some areas, such as Baracoa, else in Guantanamo, and even Holguin under rains, recuperative programs are already starting. For instance, the Farola, that beautiful road that connects Baracoa on the northern coast with the southern coast of the province, and from there to the capital city of Guantanamo and the rest of Cuba (there's a road from Baracoa on the northern coast that goes to Moa in Holguin province, but it's in very bad shape) has already been cleared of fallen trees and posts. And earlier this evening, the first trucks began to arrive in Baracoa carrying roofing tiles, steel beams, wood, etc. Three of the city's six electric circuits have already been repaired and it's hoped that the other three will be operative sometime tomorrow. This country doesn't wait to get things going! Ike is still battering Cuba, and will continue to do so for another day and a half at the lease, and the eastern part of the country is already engaged in recuperation. With a tremendous outsurge of participation by the people to clean streets of debris, assist with the distribution of materials, sift through rubble for not only their own belongings, but help others who have perhaps been more unfortunate, etc.

Other areas, though, such as Camaguey, can't begin even basic clean up as it's still heavily pouring all over the province, since early last night. And all over, some municipalities are still incomunicado, for the destruction to the communication / electrical system, for the roads blocked with fallen trees and posts, for the overflowing rivers. And the reports that are coming from these areas, by radio interviews on the TV, show that people are anxious to start the work of recuperation... there's a hunger to get beyond the hurricane experience and to get into rebuilding and back to normalcy.

All the above brings me to another observation: An important part of Cuba's system of Civil Defense - perhaps the key thing that truly makes it work well - is that the country has created a culture of prevention, a culture of protection, and a culture of collective recuperation. These are not insignificant things. In creating this culture, it’s created a consciousness among the people, the simplest of whom are exceedingly wise about what to do, when and how. It's also created a culture of collectivism. People take care of each other, they're aware of each other, they're not 'in it' only for themselves. And there's no 'show', no 'taking credit'. It's simply the way things are. Those of you who have lived here or visited here have seen this for yourselves, in one way or another.

A culture of caring. It has nothing to do with whether or not you like a particular individual, nothing at all. A culture of caring is simply about the recognition that 'the other' has the same value as a human being as you do, the same right to live and 'take space' in the world. Cuba has developed this to a very high degree, and it shows brilliantly at times like this. It's now 8:30pm and I'll stop here to take advantage of the electricity and light to send it out. I've been receiving calls from others in Havana saying they think the lights will go out soon. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think we'll have electricity all night. In any event, I already have my candles and matches at hand, and the batteries in my little Sony radio. And before I sat down to write this, I took the plants off the veranda - my living room is now a jungle! And a bit earlier this afternoon, I checked the drains on the roof, rolled up the rubber water tube and put it under the water tank up there, and re-cleared out the drains in the garage. What with the wind all day and lots of little leaves flying here and there, they had gotten slightly plugged up again from the cleaning I did several days ago.

With luck - and electricity of course! - I'll send another update. If not, I'll send an 'aftermath' email.