Cuban community left reeling by Isidore and Lili

Published: 8 October 2002 0:00 CET

Cristina Estrada and Douglas Reimer in Cuba

A broken watch, a sodden rag doll, a splintered chair. These lie among the rubble of what was a few days ago a fisherman's home. The sea and waves had never before risen so high.

"People here never thought something like this could happen, so they left lot of their belongings," says one of the residents. Playa las Canas was once a fishing town in the province of Pinar del Rio on the south western tip of Cuba. Now, only a few teetering houses remain standing after 160 kilometre per hour winds and rising seas battered the once lively town.

Hurricane Isidore prepared the ground for the destructive force of Lili. One of the poorest areas of Cuba, Pinar del Rio was hit by two hurricanes in less than two weeks. Thousands of houses were destroyed, and the province's already fragile infrastructure, its agriculture and the world renowned tobacco industry severely damaged.

"After Isidore, people came back to their houses and were just clearing things up when they had to leave again," said Juan Carlos, secretary general of the Pinar del Rio Red Cross branch. "By the time they came back after Lili, there was little to save. Everything was washed away."

From village to village the picture is repeated over and over: disemboweled matresses, soaked with saltwater, laid out to dry; bare rafters and beams, exposed when the tin roofing was torn off by wind; walls lying like matchwood in a jumble of mud and debris. At night the streets and the few homes left standing are dark. In this province where 75 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, more than a third of the municipalities are without electricity.

Though crews from across the island are working to restore the power, it will be weeks before many towns have electricity again. Without electricity the water pumps are dry and silent, and throughout the region people congregate with salvaged buckets and pails around tankers delivering water.

Amidst the destruction and loss, people have mobilized from across the island. Cutting, carrying and dragging the debris away, fashioning makeshift roofs over gaping holes, sharing space and food with friends and neighbours, caring for children and the elderly in shelters, the people of Pinar del Rio and the other affected areas are working quickly to put their world back together.

The Cuban Red Cross is an important part of this effort, providing first aid, basic services and psychological support to the more than 4,000 people still in official shelters. "Although they have lost everything, many of them are still optimistic," says Mary Lenis, once the director of a special school for children with disabilities, that now allocates evacuees from the area.

"People here just want to go back to their lives. Children need to go back to school and when possible to their own school, to be with their friends," she says. Ensuring that these residents can return home as soon as possible with dignity and the basics for restoring their lives is a top priority, especially since many of the shelters are schools and classes are about to resume.

As if two hurricanes in 10 days were not enough, it was less than a year ago that Hurricane Michelle rampaged across the island causing severe damage in eight provinces and affecting over half the population. Some experts are concerned that the economic stress of dealing with three hurricanes in less than a year will have an adverse effect on the island's short-to-medium term development.

There are, however, lessons of hope and strength to be taken from the scenes in Pinar del Rio, Isla de la Juventud, and the eastern provinces of Granma, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, where the hurricane caused flooding and landslides. Once again, good disaster preparedness and well coordinated early warning and evacuation systems have allowed the country to escape nature's fury.

In the province of Pinar del Río, some 57,000 homes were damaged and over 300,000 people were evacuated to safety. More than 7,000 Red Cross volunteers, as well as many more in civil defense brigades and other emergency and essential services, answered the call to help.

The continuing efforts in the hours and days after the hurricanes has been key to allowing the return to normal life of those who have lost so much. Supporting these efforts is at the centre of the Cuban Red Cross priorities.

Related Links:

Emergency Appeal: Hurricanes Isidore and Lili
Make an Online Donation
02 October 2002: Cuba counts the cost of Hurricane Lili
23 September 2002: Preparedness saves lives as hurricane hits Cuba
20 September 2002: Cuba on Alert for Hurricane Isidore
More on: Cuba