Cuba: Weathering the storms, from Gustav to Ike

HAVANA – (Sept. 8) A little report on the TV just updated the situation in Guantanamo. The entire province is without electricity. Cuba has a policy of turning off electricity and gas, as a preventive measure to prevent short circuits and even fires in walls, once sustained winds reach 60 kph. Flooding everywhere along the coast. Some 60,000 evacuees in just this one province and a possibility that the number might grow as the night progresses. Some people do self-evacuation, i.e., they may not be in a potential flood area, but if their house is of a weaker construction, they'll go to a family or neighbour's house that is more solid. People are being advised to go to what are called category 1 structures, meaning buildings or houses with concrete / cement walls and roof, with windows and doors that are reinforced – these are the only kinds of structures that are considered to be able to resist a hurricane of this force.
 When I last spoke with my mother-in-law in Baracoa, about two hours ago (it's almost 8pm now), she had 14 friends and neighbors in her house – which is category 1 – each family unit bringing food and kerosene with which to cook. She mentioned that a family doctor making an urgent house call near the Malecon got a broken leg when a strong wave came over the low Malecon wall and knocked him down. (Just now, on the TV, the Guantanamo provincial president of the Consejo de Defensa said that seven people have been injured but none seriously, and that there are no deaths.) Also, the TV report from Baracoa (by radio) says that the Malecon has flooded up to 400 metres into the city, in some areas between five-six blocks penetration, making it the greatest penetration in Baracoa in recorded history. For those of you who know Baracoa, water has come up to the party headquarters and very near the municipal administration building.

Although northeastern Cuba has been hit by many hurricanes over the years, this is the first time that this part of the country is being hit by a hurricane of such force. Another important detail: by no means is this the first time that Cuba has had two successive hurricanes in a very short period of time. In 2002 Hurricanes Lili and Isidore – both category two, if I remember correctly – hit western and central Cuba, with tremendous damages to all sectors and especially to housing. And there have been other times that two hurricanes were separated by only a few days, or a week, or ten days. In the case of Gustav and Ike, it's eight days.



But this is the first time in the last two centuries that Cuba has been hit successively by two category FOUR hurricanes! This has never before happened in the country's recorded history.

And I'm sure that the relationship between more frequent and more violent weather systems around the world, whether hurricanes or tsunamis or whatever – and global warming is not far from anyone's minds, nor the fact that this is what we can anticipate seeing more and more of in the very near future...



Virtually the entire country is mobilized for Ike. As of 3pm, eleven of the country's 14 provinces were put into the Alarm Phase. And Ciudad Habana and Provincia Habana are now in the Information Phase. Over 1,700 evacuation centers are organized around the country, each with the necessary supplies of medicines (and on-site health specialists), food and water. Over 900 food elaboration centres are stocked, and already working. Some 56,000 students around the country have been sent to their homes from residential schools. All classes have been suspended around the country. 



Some of the country's parabolics – antennae, whatever – have been dismantled to protect them. This means that some areas of the country will be without TV and local structures will have to rely on phone and radio for communication. Some areas, such as Maisi in the far eastern part of Guantanamo, are already incomunicado. La Farola, that beautiful road that goes over the mountains from south to north, connecting Baracoa with the rest of the country (for those of you who don't know this area...) is experiencing lots of landslides, fallen trees and electric posts, etc.



As of 8pm, Ike was 35 km east of Punta Lucrecia in Holguin, with landfall expected in an hour (9:30pm more or less). It's a high category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 195 kph. central pressure of 945 and moving west at 22 kph.



Fidel has just issued his most recent 'Reflection' that was read on tonight's Mesa Redonda (Round Table). No doubt a copy of it is already available in Internet. He started out by saying that before the country's psyche (and material base) has begun to recover from the lashing from Gustav – because although it's destruction is mainly localized in the Isla de la Juventud and Pinar del Rio, the psychological impact has been countrywide – Cuba is being hit by another equally strong, and potentially more widely destructive, hurricane. People in the bread line this afternoon were talking about this very thing, in different words but the same thought.



One last thing I want to briefly mention is that, as you know, the U.S. is one of many countries that have offered assistance to Cuba in the wake of Gustav. And, as you also probably know, Cuba turned it down. First, the U.S. wants to send people to evaluate the damages. The U.S. ALWAYS wants to send people to Cuba to evaluate damages. 



They seem to have a hard time understanding that Cuba is highly prepared, with a very wide number of trained and experienced professionals, to analyze its own damages – and does so very, very quickly, making this information available to the public through newspapers, the TV, the radio, etc. Second, Cuba said that if the US really wants to help Cuba, it should let Cuba buy – note, Cuba didn't say that the US should 'donate,' just let Cuba buy – what it needs directly from the US. In other words, stop the embargo, which does a lot more damage to Cuba than any hurricane.



I'll send this out now. FYI, as I can only send one email to five people at once – it's a technical limitation of the Cuban server – I've been sending out about six copies of these updates, to a total of some 30 people, some of whom have been sending them on to others. I'll likely send you another one tomorrow.



Meanwhile, to those of you who have been calling and/or sending emails, thank you! This is very welcome.



Several people have also written asking if I know about any plans in Canada to organize hurricane reconstruction assistance for Cuba. I understand that the CNC (Canadian Network on Cuba, an umbrella organization for Canadian friendship and solidarity groups) is organizing and sponsoring a campaign. I don't have the details, and would appreciate hearing what campaigns are being organized, as on this end, people are very interested to hear about this.


From Susan Hurlich on Sept. 7

This email is about something very immediate and of much collective concern: the imminent arrival of Hurricane Ike.



I'm sure you're all following Ike's path and developments, as well as the heroic and extremely efficient recuperation efforts in the wake of Hurricane Gustav – which, as you know, did horrendous damage in Isla de la Juventud and Pinar del Rio, but which also shows an impressive victory by the Cuban people and its system of Civil Defense in that not one life was lost.



What a tragedy that we can't say the same for Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and even the U.S., all of which had loss of life, especially Haiti.



I'm writing this email to give you an idea of the 'feel' on the streets, what people are saying, what people are doing. As of noon today, Ike remains a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 215 kph and gusts higher. It's 270 km east of Isla Inagua Grande in the eastern Bahamas and 465 km east of Punta Lucrecia in Holguin, moving eastsoutheast at 24 kph.



All the eastern provinces, from Camaguey to Guantanamo, are in the Alarm Phase. Cuban Civil Defense has four phases for hurricanes: Information, Alert, Alarm and Recuperation. Ciego de Avila west to and including Matanzas are in the Information Phase. CubaVision (TV) as well as Radio Rebelde are already dedicating full-time reporting to what's happening in all the eastern provinces: the state of preparations (evacuations, for instance, virtually complete in many locations), mobilized support services (health, food preparation, etc.), the status of dams (i.e., their existing capacity and how much additional water they can accept; if they're super-full, the spillways are open to increase their capacity), etc. 



Coastal areas are being virtually cleared out as heavy inundations are anticipated – and the Instituto de Meteorologia is saying that its direct impact on Cuba – meaning its presence on Cuban territory – will likely last for at least two full days. Reports are also saying that it's the first time since 1959 that a hurricane this strong has the potential to affect such a large part of Cuba.



Aside: in the evacuation centres, not only are evacuees given health and food support, but there are also culture and indoor sports programs, as well as ongoing information programs.



This morning, at about 9am, I called family and friends in Baracoa, Guantanamo. At that time, heavy rains were already falling, and in the local meteorological station about 20 km outside Baracoa, gusts of 120 kph were being registered. Even people in areas that don't flood are taking precautions, boarding up their windows for reinforcement from the anticipated strong winds. And people from lower areas are seeking shelter in the homes of family and friends on the higher grounds of Baracoa.



(For instance, some four families in the home of my in-laws.) It's anticipated that in another eight or so hours (possibly by 10pm or so tonight), Ike will actually be on Cuban territory, and although it's entry point will likely be somewhere between Camaguey and Holguin, it's an immense system and its hurricane winds and torrential rains will (are already) affect a huge area.



Aside: I had a long interruption – two visitors – since I wrote the above, and now it's a couple of hours later. It's now just before 3pm as I continue writing...



About half an hour ago, I called Baracoa – my in-laws; the phone lines are still working – to find out how things are, and to give them the latest news about Baracoa that was just on the TV. The electricity in Baracoa was cut at 11 this morning and they don't have a radio, so as long as the phone is working, they said they're counting on me to be their 'news reporter' about what's happening in their area. 



Here's what the TV said – and keep in mind that Ike is still some eight hours EAST of Baracoa! Gusts about 130-140 kph and one recorded at over 200 kph; 50 mm of rain in 24 hours; over 24,200 evacuated from around the municipality of whom over 23,500 are in the homes of family and friends (this is typical; the extremely high solidarity among Cubans. Even so, the 21 evacuation centres that exist in the municipality were prepared to receive the full number); over 3,000 students from residential schools already at home; some coastal areas such as Turey already flooding; some trees and posts down. This morning, Sunday, all ration stores were open in Baracoa so that people could buy what they wanted. And, to repeat, Ike is still over 200 km east of Baracoa.



Here in Havana, we had heavy rains all morning, not related to Ike but, as people on the street were saying, part of the rains that Gustav was supposed to drop but didn't. Lines at the stores – whether peso or CUC – are immense, going out to the street and along the sidewalk. The CUC bakeries are sold out. The peso bakeries are the priority, though, and are working full time, with long lines. At the peso bakery nearest my house, the line is over a block long. I just went to mark my place in line, and will return in an hour to hopefully buy bread – if it hasn't already been sold out in which case more batches will be in the oven.



The big concern that everyone has is that Ike might well be similar to Hurricane Dennis, which entered Cuba as a category 4 hurricane in July 2005 (the year of Katrina, just over a month later), and left in its wake ten of the country's fourteen provinces seriously affected and 16 deaths, one of the highest in Cuba since 1959.



For Hurricane Ike, most of the 15 hurricane diagnostic tools show it morning northwest after it enters Cuba, and since Cuba's landmass itself goes northwest, this means that Ike will most likely blast right up the length of the island, possibly all the way to Pinar del Rio! And it'll hit both sides of the country. It's about as wide as Gustav (over 250 km in radius), and when you consider that Cuba's width ranges only between 31 and 191 km, well, you can see the kind of damage that a strong hurricane could cause if it marches up the island.



And imagine the irony, actually, a painful irony, of seeing the news report on TV a couple of nights ago, of Santiago de Cuba filling two ships with roofing sheets and 500- and 1,000-gallon water tanks to send to Isla de la Juventud, and preparing a train shipment with the same for Pinar del Rio – well, imagine this going on at the same time that Santiago de Cuba is simultaneously preparing for the arrival of Ike.



It's an awful lot for one country! But then I keep thinking of Haiti, and the consequences of what happens when a nation has neither the politics nor the ability to prepare are sobering. But then, as we know, Haiti is an internationally-caused tragedy...



There's much more to say, but I know that you can also get a lot of the 'data' information on Internet. I'll continue to try sending you updates giving you a sense of what people are doing and how they're feeling.