How Cuba Deals with Hurricanes, Before and After

Civil Defense volunteers begin working several days before the hurricane comes. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

Civil Defense volunteers begin working several days before the hurricane comes. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

I’ve seen many a hurricane pass me by in these last 26 years and every time they do, I can’t stop but be amazed by the transformation that takes place. All of a sudden this indifferent tropic with a slow stride suddenly speeds up, taking on the precision of a Swiss watch. People become little ants, which seem to move about in a frenzy but each and every one is doing their job, it’s as if their own DNA is telling them what to do. A hurricane heading towards the island organizes Cubans like nobody else can.

The country becomes “militarized” and Civil Defense troop leaders in uniform take command of everything within their territory and put it towards the mission at hand. Company trucks, public buses and machines, tools are all made available.

Most of these “Comandantes” haven’t studied a military career but are people who live an ordinary life until “the enemy” approaches the Cuban coastline. Then they dust off their olive green uniform and lead their neighbors.

“Everyone who lives in a building should leave! Listen to me, you have to convince them, speak with those who are more revolutionary to support you.” This is how Saili Cisneros led the evacuation. In times of peace she’s just another neighbor, in times of a hurricane she’s the vice-president of the Prado Defense Zone.

Schools, cultural centers, businesses, the Capitolio and any other building strong enough to resist the gale winds will become a shelter where, as if by magic, mattresses, drinking water, food products and medical assistance appear.

Hundreds of thousands of people are evacuated and you can imagine the huge mobilization that this entails. However, everything is organized, with more ingenuity and solidarity than resources. Many of those affected will only have to take a few steps to protect themselves.

In every community, Cubans with sturdy houses open their doors to receive their neighbors. They improvise beds in the living room, protect their electric appliances under the dining room table, cook a communal pot of food and they even play dominoes by candlelight.

I have never seen Cubans afraid before or during a hurricane, the most tragic moment for them comes afterwards. And it’s no wonder why, the most intense hurricanes in the 21st century left 40 people dead, 26 billion USD in economic losses and 1.5 million damaged houses.

Mobilized in Holguin, a young nurse found her home completely destroyed and her grandparents in a shelter when she got back. I was doing “the nightshifts at the hospital because I don’t have anywhere to sleep, I don’t even have underwear to change myself (…) that’s why I only think about my patients”.

I have horrible images imprinted in my memory, that of a good friend of mine crying in the middle of his crushed house on Giron Beach and that of a woman trying to gather together slabs in Gibara so as to build a room where she could protect her two young daughters.

Those first moments are terrible, when the joy of knowing you’re still alive succumbs to the realization of everything you’ve lost, and that you have to start all over again from zero. “I haven’t killed myself because of my little girls,” that woman in Gibara who was improvising a room told me hopelessly.

This time the shock won’t be as great, a lot of aid for the affected was already transported to provinces in the East before the hurricane hit, including thousands of electricity poles. Meanwhile, trucks from the electricity company were on standby halfway.

Everything has been meticulously prepared but that won’t stop tens of thousands of affected Cubans needing the solidarity of their fellow Cubans and the world in order to pick themselves back up, so as not to start with nothing.

Cubans would have the right to request solidarity, they’ve given it to half of the world already, to Pakistan after the earthquake, fighting against ebola in Africa and they have given hundreds of thousands of people back their eyesight. Now it’s time to pay them back without them having to ask for it, they won’t, they’re not the kind of people that go around sending out invoices.


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