The islands and coastlines of the Caribbean are no strangers to the temper of Huracan, the Mayan God of gale force winds. The force of the natural disaster, which takes its name from the ancient deity left the first Europeans explorers and plunderers of South America awestruck, as they initially encountered the vengeful tempests of the Caribbean. Father Bartolome de Las Casas, who travelled on one of the first Spanish expeditions to the New World during the early 16th Century, commented, referring to the islands of the Caribbean and the surrounding shores of the South American subcontinent: ‘Of all the terrible tempests there are in all the seas of the world, the worst are those in the seas around these islands and Terra Firma’.
Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands is no stranger to hurricanes and tropical storms, and faces these perils on an annual basis. Indeed, the Hurricane season in Cuba lasts for almost half of the year (June-November) and every year the government and communities of Cuba make extensive preparations as the country braces itself against whatever nature might, on that particular occasion, throw its way.
On August 30th of this year, Cuba was struck by the first of two colossal hurricanes that caused widespread devastation to the country’s roads, agriculture, buildings and power grid. Gustav, the first of these hurricanes, is said to have been the most destructive tropical cyclone to have visited the island in the past half century. Wind speeds of 240 km/h were recorded as Gustav wrecked havoc across Cuba’s Isle of Youth, before moving in a northwest direction to make landfall in mainland Cuba. In the Western province of Pinar del Rio, 340km/h winds were detected, breaking existing Cuban meteorological records.
Only a week later, Gustav’s meteorological accomplice in crime, Hurricane Ike stuck Cuba’s central and eastern regions, producing 50 foot waves.
In lieu of the vast damage caused and, the inevitable subsequent impact upon Cuba’s economy, these two hurricanes will be remembered as among the worst in the country’s history, along with the ‘Great Hurricane’ of 1944 and Hurricane Flora in 1963. The damage caused is estimated to be in the order of £5 billion. Approximately 444,000 dwellings suffered damage and over 63,000 of them were demolished by the hurricanes’ forces. Two hundred thousand Cubans have been made homeless. Buildings vital to Cuba’s infrastructure such as, schools, hospitals, factories, water storage facilities and the electricity grid also fared badly under the extreme weather conditions. Despite the considerable economic damage that resulted, fortunately no deaths and, only 19 injuries, were reported in the wake of Hurricane Gustav. Hurricane Ike caused seven fatalities.
The low death toll can largely be explained by the way that Cuba deals with incoming hurricanes. The populace is well prepared for how to cope under the impact of these natural disasters. Communities meticulously plan to ensure that adequate food, medical provision and shelter will be accessible during the storm. Upon instructions to evacuate an area, there is a very high degree of popular compliance. On this occasion, nearly 3 million people, or a quarter of Cuba’s population were evacuated from those areas that were worst affected by the hurricanes.
Apart from the spirit of community solidarity being well and truly alive in Cuba, the government too plays a large role in assisting its population both before and after a hurricane strikes. On this occasion, groups of volunteers were quickly assembled to clear wreckage left by the hurricanes and to attempt to salvage what crops could be saved from the agricultural fields. Additionally, 1274 food kitchens have been set up to help provide adequate sustenance for those in need. Numerous makeshift shelters have also been established. The Cuban staple food ration is still in place and, the government has taken steps to prevent individuals from hoarding food or selling it at mark up prices in the local markets.
In comparison, Hurricane Gustav alone caused around 80 deaths when it hit Haiti. One only needs to compare Cuba’s management of a natural disaster with the way that the US government responded to Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in 2005.
Nearly two dozen countries, including the UK, have offered to send aid to Cuba. Some of the offers came from developing countries that have in previous years have benefited from Cuba’s international medical aid programmes. The UN has also pledged $3.5 million. Although the US government offered to send aid, the proposal was rejected by the Cuban government which pointed out that lifting the crippling decades long economic blockade against its country would be of far more benefit to the Cuban people than any short term relief and, would actually allow Cuba to purchase the building materials, medical supplies, foodstuffs and other essentials that it now desperately needs. Cuba’s leadership also made the point that the 46 year blockade has cost Cuba far more, in economic and humanitarian terms, than the hurricane damage. The US, on its part, rejected the idea of temporarily repealing the economic embargo.
Before the end of this year’s hurricane season, another nasty surprise was to befall Cuba. While still very much in the throes of recovering from the tempests Gustav and Ike, Paloma, the third major hurricane to batter Cuba struck its southern coast on the 8th September. This time around, with the assistance of Cuba’s Civil, over 1.2 million people were evacuated. Although no fatalities were reported on this occasion, Paloma did add to the catalogue of damage created by the previous two natural disasters, in the process ripping roofs from storm shelters.
In addition to the aid offered by a variety of countries, both rich and poor, the UK based Cuba Solidarity Campaign has launched its own hurricane relief appeal. So far £6000 has been raised and the intention is to send the money to the hurricane recovery fund in Cuba.
Those eager to help Cuba during its time of tribulations, can donate to the appeal by calling 020 8800 0155.
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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek