South Florida Sun-Sentinel: story gallery for Hurricane Michelle in Cuba
Cuba: Hurricane Michelle and Recuperación
Here we track news of the hurricane and la Recuperación, the recovery effort:
I've been wanting to write you since Saturday, Nov 3rd, but Hurricane Michelle intervened! I suspect you've had news of its impact: one of the most serious hurricanes (category 4 of 5) to hit Cuba in a long while, with damages affecting eight provinces (western and central) plus Isla de Juventud. Most seriously affected have been the provinces of Matanzas and Cienfuegos where there are still areas that are incommunicado. Immense damages to housing (in the tens of thousands of houses with partial or total damages), agriculture (especially citrus, banana and sugar cane, although lots of other food crops have also been damaged), schools, infrastructure (electricity, water and gas) and tourist installations. Just to give you an idea of what's happened, in Cienaga de Zapata - located on the southern coast of Matanzas Province - sustained winds reached 140 km per hour with wind gusts up to 250 kpm. The result was that 80% of local housing stock was damaged of which over 600 houses were completely destroyed. Cienaga - which means swamp or marshland - is the largest such area in the Caribbean. For this reason, UNESCO has recognized it as one of the world's Biosphere Reserves. Michelle left the Cienaga's ecosystem seriously damaged (it'll take years to recuperate), the barrier reef virtually disappeared, crocodile breeding areas destroyed, some 80% of the local tourist infrastructure damaged (ie, Aldea Taina in Guama completely destroyed), etc. During the actual passage of the hurricane, wind gusts were so strong in the Cienaga that the two-lane coastal highway was virtually lifted off the ground like a ribbon blowing in the breeze!
Throughout western and central Cuba, the electrical system including major high-tension installations, posts, etc. have suffered more damage than at any other time in the past 40 years! Line crews have been working around the clock, with work brigades from less affected or unaffected provinces going to those areas which have been most affected. In the city of Havana, only in the last couple of days has energy been stabilized; many areas were without light the entire week and, for a number of days, without gas (in a city where one million now depend on gas lines for cooking) and water. Our area, for instance, was one of the last to get electricity...
Unfortunately five people died, four from collapsed buildings and one from drowning. Perhaps that number seems low - and it is - but for a country such as Cuba that has put such impressive effort into developing its civil defense system, to lose one life is a tragedy! Civil defense here is outstanding. We - that's to say, the population - know about hurricanes well before they come, when they're just tropical depressions off the coast of Africa or Central America. News of its development is provided by all forms of media communication. If a hurricane is going to hit Cuba, during the two days before there are evacuations made of all people living in areas of potential risk. Children in schools in the countryside are taken to their homes. Livestock located in lowlands are taken to higher grounds. Green houses are taken down as are solar panels from rural schools and family doctor clinics. Over 700,000 people were evacuated and a similar number of animals. Cuba has a comprehensive plan of preparing for natural disasters that includes transport, the stocking with food and water of the centres to be used for evacuation (often these are schools, secure work centres and even government buildings). All mass organizations - trade unions, women, the local neighbourhood organizations, the agricultural cooperative organization, etc. - are mobilized in preparing the country. The focus is always the same: first, to minimize the loss of human life and second, to minimize damage to the economy and the built infrastructure.
So, to talk more personally, what has the past week looked like for us? First, I was alone during this time. Just the day before the first alert that the tropical storm had indeed become a hurricane and that it was heading this way, Deiler had left for Baracoa. The reason was his mother's birthday. Actually, my present to her was to send Deiler to spend her birthday with her. She was delighted about this! Had we received the hurricane alert before he left, he never would have gone! Once we got the alert, he couldn't return. Baracoa was having its own weather problems, with non-stop torrential rains day after day. Not related to the hurricane. The bus Deiler took to Baracoa turned out to be the last bus until the day he returned to Havana, last Thursday, Nov 8th. Meanwhile, in Baracoa over 600 mm of rain had fallen in just ten days, the major rivers were overflooding the bridges and over 1,500 people had to be evacuated. Fortunately my mother- and father-in-law live in the higher part of the town of Baracoa which doesn't flood.
Michelle struck Havana on the 3rd. On the 2nd, I took all the potted plants - of which there are about 50 - off our large balcony. Then I put masking tape on all the windows; it really works in preventing breakage as it helps distribute wind pressure out from the centre of the glass. Saturday morning we had already lost electricity throughout the city. Rather, once winds start to grow, the city shuts down the electrical supply to prevent damage and fire. Of course, once electricity goes, gas goes as well (Havana's two gas-supplying plants run on electricity) as does water. Along with our neighbours, I filled up our in-house water supply carrying water by buckets from our cistern (which was empty by Sunday), made sure my short-wave radio had batteries and that our candle supply was OK (although, after spending six days with only candle light at night, we've now decided to buy a paraffin lantern), went to the market to buy some fruit and helped some of our neighbours with their own hurricane preparations (some of whom had already helped me with mine). Then, it's just sit and wait, listening to the news of the radio about what's happening elsewhere in the country (ie, Michelle was already seriously hitting southern Cuba with strong winds on Saturday) and reading.
By Sunday night, the winds in Havana were quite strong, some 120 kph sustained with wind gusts up to 150 kph. Our kitty, Demetrios, was not very happy with any of this and spent about 48 hours non-stop sitting on my lap, which is very difficult to do when I'm not sitting down, trying to hide in my arms and tucking his head under my elbow! Didn't sleep most of the night as the winds made lots of noise and I wanted to hear the news anyway. In Batabano, a small coastal community located due south of the city of Havana, the ocean had entered some 300 metres. This happened in many southern and northern coastal communities in the provinces of Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Villa Clara. Entire communities had been evacuated. Tremendous destruction of houses. Immense flooding of communities and crops.
Monday afternoon, from our balcony, you could see two trees down in our block. Elsewhere in the city some 3,000 trees had been knocked down, many of them really huge. Telephone poles also knocked down and live wires on the ground. Crews out immediately working on this. Other crews working on harvesting, in a manner of speaking, destroyed crops. For instance, in Jaguey Grande, one of Cuba's most important citrus-producing areas in Matanzas, some 90,000 tonnes of oranges and grapefruit were knocked off the trees. The ground was literally covered by a bumpy carpet of fruit! This is already being picked up and distributed as quickly as possible to population centres to eat. The same with bananas, although here what can't be eaten by people can be given to the animals. The damage to sugar cane is more difficult: while bent cane can still produce a good harvest, it can't be cut by machine (which needs to have the cane standing straight and tall) but instead must be hand-cut by machete, which is tiresome and back-breaking work. In western and central Cuba, almost the entire sugar cane harvest is machine-cut, so having so much cane bent is a difficult situation. Lots of loss of food crops: rice in Sancti Spiritus province, root crops, etc. The priority now is to plant crops that grow quickly (such as corn) to get food to people as soon as possible.
On Tuesday, I took a drive around the city with my downstairs neighbour. Everywhere, trees and telephone poles down. Wires on the ground. Damage to some roofs of houses and warehouses. A couple of hotels and two movie houses damaged. But now, if you were to drive around the city, you'd wonder if a hurricane came here or not! The rapid efforts at reconstruction combined with a massive - and voluntary - participation from the people is truly an inspiration to see. As one old farmer said who had lost his house: "We've had the hurricane. We've suffered. There's no point continuing to cry. We must get busy and rebuild. We have the most important thing - our lives."
Deiler came back last Thursday, Nov 8th. The day before the first bus in some ten days had left Havana for Baracoa, and Deiler took this bus back. (Planes had also been cancelled...) He arrived with a cold and cough so I've spent the weekend taking care of him. Almost recovered and, today, his spirits are also feeling much better.
|As Cubans began digging themselves out from the rubble of
Hurricane Michelle, they discovered far greater devastation than they
imagined. The November 4th storm, its winds peaking at over 150mph, was
the worst to hit the island in 50 years. Michelle cut a path of
destruction through the central provinces, taking with it homes,
hospitals, schools and 125 high-voltage towers-effectively slicing the
island in two, and shutting down electricity for weeks to come in some
In the health sector, evacuation of 750,000 people kept the loss of life at a remarkably low five deaths. Top health officials were dispatched within 24 hours to personally review the situation in the hardest-hit provinces of Matanzas, Villa Clara and Cienfuegos.
Among the centers most severely damaged is the Matanzas Province Medical School, whose hilltop location over the Matanzas Bay made it easy prey for hurricane winds. Construction teams are now on the ground, beginning repairs to serious structural damage to both student dormitories and classrooms. But perhaps a more serious blow to medical education came when Michelle shattered every window in the Medical School Library, hurricane winds and rain ripping through the building.
Because many of us at MEDICC have been hosted by Matanzas and other Cuban medical schools, we are especially committed to helping their faculty and students recover from this catastrophe. We can't be there to raise the walls, but we can rebuild the stacks.
JOIN MEDICC: Help us rebuild the collections of the Matanzas Medical School Library!
What they need: "Medical Textbooks. Recent editions in all fields (including nursing and dentistry).
"Reference Books in Women's Health. Matanzas Medical School has set up the country's first Women's Health Studies Department.
"Medical dictionaries and encyclopedias. Both text and CD format are useful.
What you can do:
2) Contact Diane Appelbaum, MEDICC's U.S. Director, if you have books to donate to the Matanzas Medical School Library: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All U.S. donations of books and informational materials to Cuba are authorized under the Free Trade in Ideas Act of 1994.
Thank you for your generosity-and be sure to visit MEDICC's website to see your donation at work for the Matanzas Medical School Library. www.medicc.org
MEDICC sends you our appreciation in advance, and wishes you a warm holiday season.
Peter Bourne, M.D., Co-Chair, MEDICC Academic Council
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