Cuba on first name terms with hurricanes

Published: 20 September 2004 0:00 CET

Cristina Estrada in Havana

Punta de Cartas, Playa las Canas, Cortez, Sandino, all these places in the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio sound familiar: they are the places that were swept away two years ago when hurricanes Isidore and Lili smashed into the island.

They are back in the news again. This time the name is Ivan.

In the small fishing village of Punta de Cartas, nearly 80 per cent of the 105 houses have been damaged.

“If we had stayed, we would not have survived,” says Eli Suárez, delegate of the Popular Party in the village. “It is worse than with Isidore and Lili. Thanks to prevention measures, we were at least able to save a few things.”

What the villagers didn’t take, they lost as the sea level rose by three metres.

“We had very beautiful kitchen utensils that the Red Cross gave us after hurricanes Isidore and Lili. We have lost them,” says one of Suárez’s neighbours.

The people of Punta de Cartas walk around barefoot. Many lost all their clothes when Ivan struck, and those that were wearing shoes when they were evacuated, are sparing them, not wanting to damage them as they clear away the debris left by the hurricane.

Although Hurricane Ivan did not hit Cuba directly, the hurricane was still big enough to cause severe damage. “Many places are still under water, there is no electricity, and therefore no telephone and no water, since this is distributed through water pumps,” says Guillermo Garcia, a water and sanitation delegate deployed by the International Federation to assist the Cuban Red Cross.

Currently, the Cuban Red Cross is working with the Civil Defence to assess the damage caused by the hurricane and the needs of the affected population.

According to the local government the most pressing basic needs are roofing materials and non-food relief items like mattresses, kitchen equipment and hygiene kits.

As well as clearing away garbage, fallen trees and rubble, Red Cross volunteers are working with the local government to devise a strategy that will allow evacuated people to return to their homes.

Ahead of Ivan’s arrival, nearly 2 million people, or 17 per cent of the island’s population, were moved from their homes – the largest number of people ever evacuated in Cuba.

In Pinar del Rio, the province directly affected by the hurricane, 32 per cent of the population was evacuated, 90 per cent of them with relatives. Cattle and poultry were also sheltered.

Pinar del Rio is the province where most of the island’s tobacco is produced. Although production has not been affected, many of the buildings used by the tobacco industry were blown away. There was also severe damage reported to agriculture, especially citrus plantations.

Still recovering from the damage caused by Lili and Isidore, it will take a while for the inhabitants of this province to get back to their normal life.

Hurricane Ivan is the most intense hurricane to have threatened the island in the last 50 years. Based on United Nations data, in the last ten years, and mainly due to cyclical hurricanes that affect this Caribbean island, the country has suffered an estimated US$ 4,500 million in losses.