Juan Carlos Cordero stares at two walls and a staircase to nowhere — all that remains of a seaside home that he was renovating.
The walls he built with his own hands came tumbling down when Hurricane Irma pushed a mountain of water into the waterfront homes in this fishing village made famous in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.’’ Cordero lives with his in-laws and the Cojímar house was going to be the first home he and his wife had ever owned.
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But less than a month after Irma unleashed angry seas on this village just east of Havana, the memorial that houses a bust of Hemingway cast from melted-down boat propellers contributed by local fishermen has been repainted a sky blue, the Hemingway park has been replanted, foundations have been laid to replace portions of the seawall that crumbled in the storm, and La Terraza, the bar where Hemingway used to linger for a drink, is open for business.
Although Hemingway didn’t live in Cojímar, he kept his fishing boat Pilar in the village, and it was the home of Gregorio Fuentes, the fisherman believed to have inspired the famous Hemingway novel about an epic battle to catch a huge marlin. Fuentes died in 2002.
The touristy part of town, which is a requisite stop for Hemingway aficionados, is just about ready for prime-time. But further along the coast on C Street, the homes that faced the sea took a beating.
Dalay Menéndez and her husband Juan Manuel Doncel watched from the upper level of a friend’s house as the water entered their one-story home. It broke the lock and door frame of the front door, rushed through the bathroom, breaking the fixtures and depositing a concrete block in the washing machine. The wall surrounding the house collapsed and the garage door is now warped and ragged.
On a recent day, the inside walls of the home were mildewed and the clothes still in the closet were showing spots. The couple returned the day after Irma passed to clean up the waterlogged mess and they’ve been living in the house ever since.
“Everything will have to be repainted, but this place is a palace compared to what it was just after Irma,” Menéndez said. After evaluating damages, the local People’s Council decided the couple was entitled to free cement, two exterior doors, an interior door and new bathroom fixtures.
But the new bathroom fixtures and the exterior doors aren’t available yet so the couple is making due with a temporary door and a loaner toilet and sink supplied by a neighbor.
The hurricane dumped concrete blocks, tiles, boulders and seaweed on the streets. But all that has been cleaned up, and electricity was back within a week.
Outside Menéndez’s home, the street buzzed with activity. Government work brigades rebuilt sidewalks and walls. Men staggered under the weight of sacks of cement, toted boards, and repaired cracks in foundations and patios as a radio blasted salsa music, and an elderly couple climbed a rickety ladder to make repairs on their roof. A group of boys played soccer in the wreck of an old swimming pool.
“There’s nothing else to do. What else are we going to do except try to fix things?” asked Menéndez, who teared up for the first time since she began showing a reporter her damaged home. “There are losses we won’t be able to recover. I can just imagine how it is for the people who lost everything. They must have a really strong heart.”
What else are we going to do except try to fix things?
Dalay Menéndez, Cojímar resident
Along one of the side streets the government has set up a tent that sells cleaning products, another selling food at highly subsidized prices, a tent selling cookies and other sweets, and the most popular of all, an ice cream stand. A man doled out scoops of orange pineapple ice cream from a bucket as a long line of people waited with plastic containers to receive the frozen treat. The price was the equivalent of four cents per scoop.
Asked if she thought the government was doing enough to help people, Menéndez just rolled her eyes and said, “I don’t know what to tell you.’’ She said she and her husband are considering moving away.
Meanwhile, Cordero, 48, has squirreled away cement block, rebar and salvaged tiles that he hopes to use to rebuild his home. “Look,” he said taking out his cellphone, “This is a wall I built with my own hands. That is what hurt me the most when I came back and saw it was gone. But I do want to reconstruct this house. It’s my dream. There are people who say I’m crazy, but anyway ... .”
Even as he dealt with the wreck of his own home, his thoughts were with the people in Puerto Rico and their direct hit from Hurricane Maria. “This hurricane didn’t even directly hit Cojímar. If it had, I imagine at this point we’d be able to see all the way to Miami. There would be nothing left,” Cordero said.
A few doors further on, Tamara Valdes, a custodian, obsessively mopped the tile floors of her home. The water came through her bedroom, ruining the mattress and carrying off doors in its wake. “Most of the clothes were ruined,” she said. But those she could save were hung on window slats and a tree by her front door to dry. Sneakers dried on the roof.
The government has given her and her husband mattresses, soap, detergent and boards to reinforce the sagging ceiling in her living room. “Little by little, I hope they’ll be giving us more things,” she said. “The church has helped out with distributions of powdered milk, rice, beans, clothing and shoes, Valdes said, and she has eaten at the government food tents.
At an old stone house that sits on higher ground along the Malecón, José Fraga considers himself fortunate. The house, which was built in the shape of a boat and is known as “The Boat House,” was built in 1826 and has weathered many hurricanes. This time Irma tore a hole in the roof, knocked out a window and toppled the weathered picket fence surrounding the home.
With the help of his neighbor, Fraga has already made his repairs. “Someone came by from the People’s Council to see the damages,” he said. A government hurricane recovery programs allows Cubans to buy construction materials at half price or get them for free if they considered low-income.
“Cojímar is going forward. There’s been the enthusiasm, the spirit to work to recover,” he said.
The Torreón de Cojímar, an old Spanish stone fort along the Malecón, will probably be closed for quite awhile. The sea chewed away the foundation underlying the staircase leading to the upper level of the fort.
Even though large chunks of the nearby fishing pier broke off and were tossed ashore, a lone man recently fished from the little that remained of the pier. And out in the bay, the fishermen perched on little molded foam floats cast their lines and hoped for luck.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi