Electrical power was quickly restored after Hurricane Irma’s scrape along Cuba’s northern coast, much of the flood damage in Havana was cleaned up within weeks, and tourism facilities opened in time for the winter season.
But the island still bears deep scars from Irma’s passage.
Four months after the first Category 5 hurricane to hit Cuba since 1932 caused 10 deaths and $13 billion in damages, housing remains the most critical need — especially in the central coastal provinces hardest hit by Irma. Tens of thousands of homes still need repairs.
In the 72 hours that Irma rolled across Cuba, the hurricane also took a heavy toll on agriculture, but most crops were quickly replanted. The 2018 sugar harvest is now underway, but damage to sugar mills, cane fields that were flooded or flattened, a prolonged drought and recent heavy rains are expected to add up to a disappointing harvest.
“Cuba is recovering — in some ways quickly. In other ways, recovery was moving glacially,” said Daniel Jiménez, chief executive of the Miami-based CubaOne Foundation, which took a group of 40 young Cuban Americans on a hurricane relief mission to the island in late October.
“A complete lack of household construction materials meant that people who have lost their homes couldn't expect building materials, like roofs, to be available before May 2018, eight months after the storm,” he said. “Many people preferred to leave the most affected towns near the shore and move in with family members further inland rather than rebuild, hollowing out small vibrant communities.”
Granma, the newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, recently published a six-part series on recovery efforts 100 days after Irma ripped through Cuba in early September before veering north toward Florida.
Twelve provinces suffered damage, but the Granma report focused on Havana, Villa Clara, Ciego de Ávila, Matanzas, Sancti Spíritus, and Camagüey. Of 156,304 homes that suffered damage ranging from missing and partially missing roofs to total or partial collapses in those six provinces, more than 111,000 remain to be rebuilt, according to Granma.
In Havana, about 90 percent of damaged homes have been repaired, but 251 families have been unable to return to their dwellings because of the severity of the damage.
In Camagüey, where 43,689 homes took a hit, repairs had been completed for only 22 percent by the end of December, according to the Granma report. In Villa Clara, only 30 percent of the more than 51,000 affected homes have been rebuilt.
Of 31,540 homes damaged in Ciego de Ávila, repairs had been completed on 8,750 at the end of December. More than 4,200 homes were considered to be total losses, but just 232 have been replaced. Just over 69 percent of educational centers, 66 percent of health facilities and 73.4 percent of damaged businesses had been repaired in the province.
Cuba has been getting international help in replacing its battered housing stock.
The European Union contributed 700,000 euros (about $842,300) through the United Nations Development Programme, mostly to help 8,000 residents of Yaguajay in Sancti Spíritus province restore their homes and lives. The EU hopes to strengthen local capacities by emphasizing hurricane-resilient repair and using locally-produced construction materials.
The UN Central Emergency Response Fund also contributed $2.5 million to Cuba, and UNDP chipped in $500,000 for tarps, mattresses, roof modules, and equipment for local production of construction materials.
Despite being in dire financial straits itself, Venezuela also has helped with the Cuban housing recovery. Gen. Ramón Espinosa Martín, chief of the Eastern army, recently visited Nuevitas, where the first of 50 “petrocasas,” donated by the Venezuelan government, are expected to be ready in February.
After some natural disasters, Cuba has rebuffed aid from U.S.-based organizations. But after Irma’s pass, Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, its Cuban partner, reached 7,000 people on the island with prepared food and hygiene kits.
CubaOne raised $75,000 in hurricane relief, including a $10,000 donation from Major Lazer, the electronic music trio.
The foundation delivered a new mattress to an 89-year-old woman who had been sleeping on a damp one for weeks, as well as flew in supplies ranging from baby clothes to vitamins, and worked with local churches and NGOs to rebuild in the provinces of Villa Clara, Ciego de Ávila and Camagüey.
What impressed the volunteers the most, Jiménez said, was Cubans’ willingness to help each other. “Many did not ask anything for themselves, but asked us to check on others in the community: the pregnant mother, the older neighbor … they always asked for others,” he said. “One woman with severe medical conditions and who had lost her entire house responded [that she wanted] ‘sólo tú amor y tus oraciones.’” [Just your love and prayers.]
Informal “suitcase relief” from Cuban Americans, food boxes from online stores and remittances also have helped with recovery efforts.
But life remains difficult for Cubans in towns like Esmeralda, Sierra de Cubitas, Nuevitas, Bolivia, Isabel de Sagua, Primero de Enero and Caibarién.
It’s clear that cleaning up Havana and getting restaurants, hotels and other tourist attractions up and running was a government priority, and work brigades and the military swung into action, making sure not only hotels were repaired but also the roads, bridges and airports needed to get to them. Most hotels and private bed-and-breakfasts in the capital had reopened in a matter of weeks.
Granma reported that all 18 hotels in Jardin del Rey, a tourist archipelago off the northern coasts of Ciego de Ávila and Camagüey, are open, as are the marina and the Cayo Guillermo dolphinarium, whose six resident dolphins were airlifted to safety in Cienfuegos as 160 mph winds bore down on the north coast. Granma reported 7,400 of the 8,028 hotels in the archipelago are available to receive guests.
A tourist from Oshawa, Canada, who posted a review on TripAdvisor after a recent visit to the Pullman Cayo Coco resort, reported that “buildings were redone … no signs of any storm. There was some grounds damage still evident, but groundskeepers were busy with new plantings.”
Another Canadian guest who visited over the Christmas holidays gave the resort an outstanding rating, but said that most of the machines in the gym were out of service because of hurricane damage.
Other guests complained about the downed trees and lack of variety in the fruit and vegetables they were served at Jardines del Rey hotels.
Guests at the Cuban coastal resorts tend to be Canadians and Europeans because U.S. law doesn’t allow Americans whose sole purpose is tourism to travel to the island. American travelers tend to stay in Havana and other Cuban cities where it is easier to engage in the purposeful travel and exchanges with Cubans required by U.S. law.
Despite losing weeks in September and October as the tourism industry spruced up post-Irma, the Cuban government still reported receiving a record number of Americans in 2017.
Cuba reported that 619,523 U.S. travelers visited the island in 2017 — more than double the 2016 figure — and Cuban Americans made another 453,905 visits. Despite the new record, those numbers began to slow in the final months of the year after the Trump administration issued new restrictive trade and travel regulations and the State Department put out a travel warning for Cuba.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi