by José Pérez
Santiago de Cuba has – for centuries – been a loud and lively city nestled at the foot of mountains that meet the Caribbean Sea. Birthplace of people like Desi Arnaz, Rita Marley, and Afro-Cuban military genius Antonio Maceo, Santiago and its residents are always vibrant. It is because of this that a walk around the densely-populated city in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy indicated that something was very wrong. “Santiago is wrapped in a deafening silence of despair,” said Dr. Alberto Jones of the Caribbean American Children’s Foundation, who grew up in nearby Guantanamo and had been in Cuba visiting family and friends when the killer storm hit.
What Dr. Jones witnessed in Santiago was not limited to Cuba’s second city. He described what he saw in places like Songo, La Maya, and Guantanamo as “horrifying, devasting, and unbelievable.” Much of Jones’ shock comes, his wife Sylvia said, from an unexpected sudden strengthening of the hurricane just before it made landfall in Cuba from a Catagory 1 to a 3. “It was a surprise to all of us,” said Ms. Jones.
Describing the damage inflicted on Eastern Cuba as “massive,” Dr. Jones said that “hundreds of roads are blocked and overflowing rivers have washed away railroad tracks and bridges” in the area. “A lack of electricity & telephone services and insufficient purified drinking wáter,” said Dr. Jones, “are some of the most pressing issues right now.”
Ventura Figueras Lores, a reporter in Guantanamo, said that, despite obstacles, “chlorine and other disinfecting products to purify water for human consumption” are being distributed for free through the Cuban government’s pharmacy network. In fact, Dr. Jones and Figueras pointed out that rebuilding efforts are already underway. “Thousands of men from local organizations and civil defense forces feverishly removed fallen trees, electric poles and rubble obstructing roads and highways,” said Dr. Jones, “as others built alternative routes or strengthened weakened structures.” Even ordinary citizens like older adults and children are involved with the process said Dr. Jones.
Ms. Jones said that this proactive approach to hurricanes is nothing new for Cubans. “Cuba has the best record in the Caribbean as far as casualties after storms are concerned,” she said pointing out that seminars such as a series sponsored by the Center for InternationalPolicy’s Cuba Project for U.S. emergency management officials that study the model of Cuba’s civil defense and disaster preparedness are proof of Cuba’s successes in this area. “Everyone knows where to go, what to do,” said Ms. Jones of the intimate depth of community-based hurricane readiness. “They don’t wait for you to evacuate – they come and pick you up.”
In light of that, the Jones and many others were devastated by the news that 11 people in Cuba alone were killed because of the storm and “the tens of thousands of roofless or windowless homes, schools, healthcare facilities, nursing homes, daycares, cultural centers that were partially or totally destroyed,” said Dr. Jones are “simply heartbreaking.”
“Here, despite all of the adversity,” said Figueras, “is a real human hurricane.” He explained that this “human hurricane” is evident by “the people along with the authorities rushing into affected áreas with help despite the scarcity of resources.” Indeed, volunteers have been coming into Eastern Cuba from every part of Cuba to aid with the recovery ever since the all-clear signal was posted. But, still, more help is needed.
“We are asking every concerned and caring individual to open their hearts,” said Dr. Jones who has spent more than 20 years directing humanitarian efforts in Eastern Cuba from his home in Northeast Florida. “We want to get the word out,” said Ms. Jones about the need for help.