Aware that the Cuban government sometimes rebuffs hurricane relief from large U.S.-based charities, Cuban Americans and exile organizations are scrambling to come up with ways to help friends and family after Hurricane Irma tore through the island’s north coast.
Broad swaths of the island from Baracoa on the eastern tip to west of Havana are without power and still water-logged after storm surges caused widespread flooding. The government said it was working day and night to restore 15 transmission lines and 1,267 miles of downed power lines.
Food and water are in short supply. A preliminary analysis by the United Nations found 3.1 million Cubans didn’t have running water after Irma. Some 26,000 people remain in shelters, according to state media.
Idanis Martín, 34, has lived for the past two years in West Kendall but the rest of her family resides on Goicuría Street in Caibarién, among the hardest hit coastal areas in Cuba.
“My family says that there was not a bush left in the village,” she said. “The little [food] they had was spoiled” when the power went out. “They tell me that the last box of chicken I sent them rotted when there was still more than half left.”
So on Tuesday, while still recovering from Irma’s pass through Florida, she went to the online store Supermarket 23 and spent $130 to send her family ground beef, beef cuts, a box of chicken and scalloped pork. It usually takes a week or 15 days for such shipments to arrive in Cuba, Martín said.
After Irma turned north away from Cuba toward Florida, the Cuban American National Foundation contacted civil society groups it works with in Matanzas, a province east of Havana.
“We said we are going to send you money. They said, ‘We need food,’ ” said Pepe Hernández, president of the foundation.
But without Cuban government approval, it will be impossible for U.S. organizations to send large food shipments.
Last year when Hurricane Matthew caused extensive damage in eastern Cuba and Haiti, the Miami Archdiocese asked for donations of canned food, rice and beans, cash and help with transporting goods to both countries.
Cuba didn’t want the food donations from the archdiocese or Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said he was finally able to get a cash donation to the bishop of the Diocese of Guantánamo-Baracoa, but since the bishop couldn’t buy food and supplies at wholesale prices and there was little supply anyway in Cuba, he had to look abroad for purchases at greater cost.
Wenski said he planned to go to Cuba for the Sept. 30 ordination of the new bishop of Ciego de Ávila, and he hoped to get a better understanding of Cuban needs then and “see in what way we can help them.”
The archdiocese is currently accepting financial donations through Catholic Charities and other entities to help not only victims in Cuba, but also in the Florida Keys, the Virgin Islands and the rest of the ravaged Caribbean.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also is calling for a special collection for Hurricane Irma victims on Sept. 23-24. Over Labor Day weekend, there was a collection for Hurricane Harvey victims.
Even though many in Florida are still reeling from their own hurricane damages, Wenski said, “We’ve seen in the past week a lot of generosity. There’s a great spirit of solidarity. We’re all breathing a collective sigh of relief in Miami because we were spared the worst of Irma and that can inspire generosity.”
To get much-needed food to Cuba, the Cuban American National Foundation plans to work with companies that send pre-packaged food parcels or to employ “mules,” who make a business of transporting products to Cuba. Some mules charge the price of a round-trip ticket to the island and take 100 pounds of goods; others charge $4-$6 per pound, Hernández said.
The reopening of Cuban airports will make it easier to send food and other humanitarian supplies. But Yudelkis Barceló, manager of Envíos y Más Express, a Miami-based company that sends packages to Cuba, said with the damaged infrastructure in Cuba, “it’s still going to be a little while for us to get back to normal.”
José Martí International Airport in Havana reopened on Wednesday. “The Cuba flights have been really full,” said Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, which serves six Cuban cities.
American was to resume flights to four other Cuban airports — Holguín, Varadero, Camagüey and Cienfuegos — on Saturday. AA also offers flights to Santa Clara, but Pantin said the airport there was severely damaged and wouldn’t be accepting flights through Oct. 31.
While food is the immediate need in Cuba, Hernández said the Foundation also plans to begin offering other programs in the coming week to help Cubans walloped by Irma. It will be picking up the fees for those who want to wire money via Western Union to Cuba, for example.
Although the Foundation generally focuses on helping dissidents and civil society groups, Hernández said the exile organization also plans to aid others inside Cuba who have urgent needs.
“Civil society groups plan to go to the affected areas and identify families in need,” he said. “They’ll take their names, I.D. numbers and addresses, and then we’ll send each family $100 through Western Union.” Western Union operates 450 locations throughout Cuba.
Miami-based CubaOne Foundation and Seattle-based Give2Cuba are trying a different route to get supplies to Cuba. They are looking for volunteers to raise money through the Crowdrise platform and then carry relief supplies, especially to the severely affected provinces of Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spíritus and Santa Clara.
CubaOne, an organization of young Cuban Americans who want to build relationships with the Cuban people, also is planning a people-to-people trip to Cuba in October.
The Cuban American National Foundation also plans to ramp up an ongoing housing assistance program that provides funds to Cubans who need to make home repairs. The program, which provides up to $1,200 in assistance, has been upgrading six to eight homes per month and has done nearly 60 to date.
“Now we hope to step up this program and we hope there will be more donations,” said Hernández. “So far, the government hasn’t given us any trouble about this program.”
But that it isn’t always the case when it comes to sending hurricane relief from the Miami community to Cuba. After some storms, Wenski said, the Cubans were willing to accept donations. For others, like Hurricane Matthew, it was a challenge.
“We’ll have to see if it changes this time and Cuba is willing to accept donations,” said Wenski.
The Cuban government is already accepting humanitarian relief from other donors.
On Thursday, Granma, the Communist Party of Cuba newspaper, said a ship carrying five containers of rice, oil and other food arrived at the Port of Mariel from Panama. Copa Airlines also has sent 4,800 tons of hygiene products, sheets, food and other supplies to the Havana airport. Fifteen more containers of relief items are scheduled to arrive next week at the port of Santiago de Cuba, according to the Panamanian Foreign Ministry.
Some $150,000 worth of aid from Vietnam’s Thai Binh Trade and Investment Corp. also is expected to arrive soon.
Cuban Americans in South Florida said they’re up to the challenge of helping Cubans on the island recover. “Our community cares about the Cuban people, and we are going to do everything we can to support them during this difficult time,” said Giancarlo Sopo, chairman and co-founder of CubaOne.
El Nuevo Herald correspondent Mario J. Pentón contributed to this report
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi
To donate to hurricane victims in Cuba:
CubaOne Foundation: To sign up for a humanitarian aid trip to Cuba: http://cubaone.org/irma-relief//
CubaOne and 3:05 Cafecito are collecting food, medicine and other urgently needed items at 1549 SW Eighth St., second floor, from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. They hope to send them to Cáritas, the Catholic Charities organization in Cuba.