The people of Santiago de Cuba thought they were going to avoid the worst of Hurricane Sandy, but then on the night of 25 October, they found out that the hurricane was coming straight at them. The government advised people to find shelter, stay calm and remain alert to radio and television reports.
Despite these precautionary measures, Sandy was so destructive it wiped out almost everything in its path. “The next day, when I returned home, the only thing I found where my house once stood was debris… I lost everything,” recounts Bárbara, 38, from Aguadores in Santiago de Cuba.
Heavy rains and winds of nearly 200 kilometres an hour destroyed whole houses, lifted off roofs, and swept away furniture and even animals, and the strong force of nature is clearly visible seven months on.
Sandy is the strongest hurricane to hit the eastern region of Cuba in half a century. It is estimated that 1.3 million people – roughly the population of Stockholm – were directly affected, leaving people without access to clean water and energy supply, destroying crops and disrupting healthcare and education. The provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Holguin and Guantanamo were the most affected. It is estimated that in in Santiago and Holgíun over 24,000 homes were completely destroyed and another 212,000 houses were partially damaged.
The Cuban Red Cross was one of the first humanitarian organizations to respond during the emergency. In the past seven months, the National Society has delivered – with the support of the Norwegian, Spanish and German Red Cross societies through an ECHO-funded project, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and other donors – a range of relief items to over 25,000 affected families. The relief items include roofing materials, mattresses, clean drinking water, jerry cans, and hygiene and kitchen kits.
So far, due to efforts of the government and the Cuban Red Cross, about 30 per cent of the houses that were affected have been repaired. However, despite these significant efforts, the many people are in desperate need of assistance, with approximately 160,000 households in Santiago and Holguin still without a proper roof and many families have wet mattresses. The situation is getting more desperate as the rainy season has now started.
“Between the months of May and October, the hurricane season begins in this country, bringing with it the consequence that many families are getting wet,” says Dr Zoelia Cassola Lopez, Director of the Cuban Red Cross in Santiago de Cuba.
Rubén Sánchez, age 62, is in exactly this situation. He lives with his wife in Santiago de Cuba. During the hurricane, they sheltered under the bed. They came out at daybreak to discover that over half of their roof was gone. They were able to save some belongings, but their mattress was wet and rotted. Seven months on, they still need help. “The roof sheets that I have put up are ones I found on the street, zinc sheets full of holes. When it rains, there are so many leaks that everything gets wet inside,” says Rubén.
The solidarity of the Cuban people, together with the hard work of the Cuban Red Cross and the government to restore services and repair the damage brings a small glimmer of hope for the thousands of families who are still waiting for a roof over their heads seven months after Hurricane Sandy turned their lives upside down.