Update on Hurricane Irma’s Impact on Cuba

Now that Hurricane Irma has left Cuba, greater details have emerged about its impact.

Early Reports

On the morning of Sunday (September 10) Reuters reported that “waves of up to 36 feet (11 meters) smashed businesses along Havana’s sea-side drive, . . . pummeling famous hotels such as the Copacabana, which were evacuated along with flooded neighborhoods.  Although the hurricane “did not hit Havana directly and brought only moderate wind and rain, . . .  the storm surge was still driving giant waves over the sea wall.” Associated Press added, “Seawater penetrated as much as 1,600 feet (500 meters) inland in parts of the city. Trees toppled, roofs were torn off, cement water tanks fell from roofs to the ground and electrical lines are down.” As a result, “emergency workers in inflatable boats navigated flooded streets Sunday along Havana’s coastline, where thousands of people left their homes for safer ground before Hurricane Irma hit Cuba.”[1]

Late Sunday afternoon Cuban authorities warned that the floodwaters in Havana could linger for more than a day as waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters) continued to pound the city. The U.S. Embassy astride the Malecon was damaged; its black perimeter fence, exterior panels, windows and doors were damaged. High-end hotels Melia Cohiba and Rivera also were damaged.

72 miles (116 km) east of the capital, Varadero, the country’s most important tourist resort, was whipped by winds, but it appeared to escape the full fury of the storm. The head of civil defense for the province said, “Our preliminary estimate of damage in Varadero is that it was concentrated in metal structures, false ceilings, and some buildings.”

On Sunday morning Raúl Castro as the President of the National Civil Defense Council issued a statement that the hurricane “has strongly impacted electrical infrastructure in practically the entire country, which impedes the concentration of brigades of specialized linemen in a particular zone.”[2]

Early Sunday afternoon that Council’s Advisory No. 6 stated, “Although Irma is gradually moving away from the island, it continues to represent a threat to Cuba. Its outer bands continue to affect the country’s central and western regions, with heavy and locally intense rainfall. Tropical storm strength winds continue to be felt from Sancti Spíritus to Artemisa, as well as storm surges along the northwest coast from Matanzas to Artemisa, the northern coast of the provinces of Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara, and the southern shoreline from Camagüey to Matanzas.”

The Miami Herald has been publishing photographs of the effects of Irma in Cuba.[3]

Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Special Report

On Monday, the Center for Democracy in the Americas issued a special report, which is reprinted here in its entirety.[4]

“Hurricane Irma slammed into Cuba over the weekend, leaving 10 dead and causing destruction and flooding across the island. Irma, which made landfall in the country’s northeastern provinces as a Category 5 storm, was the strongest storm to hit Cuba in 85 years, according to Reuters.”

Damages

“The hurricane wrought havoc in Cuba’s keys, badly damaging most structures and all but destroying the international Jardines del Rey airport in Cayo Coco. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro released a statement Monday, saying, ‘Given the immensity of [Irma’s] size, practically no region has escaped its effects.’”

“Though Havana avoided a direct hit, the capital city saw extensive flooding, with 36-foot waves rising well over the Malecón (seawall) and seawater reaching one-third of a mile inland, according to Reuters and the Associated Press. The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which is located along the Malecón, saw structural damage to its fence and severe flooding inside the building.”

“According to CubaDebate, 7 of the 10 reported deaths across Cuba occurred in Havana, mostly due to falling structures and live electrical cables lying in the city’s flooded streets. Much of the island remains without power or cell service.”

“Cuba had evacuated over 1 million people, including over 8,000 tourists, prior to the storm’s arrival.”

Economic Impacts

“Irma has brought consequences for a number of Cuba’s principle economic sectors, including the sugar and tourism industries.”

“According to Granma, 300,000 hectares of sugarcane crops and 40 percent of sugar refineries in Cuba suffered some degree of damage from the storm. Cuba harvested 436,000 hectares of sugarcane in 2015, the last year for which data was available.”

“Meanwhile, the extensive damage to the Cuban Keys has left many of the country’s most popular resorts uninhabitable. President Castro stated that damages ‘will be recovered before the start of the high season’ for tourism.”

Response

“In his statement, President Castro said, ‘It is not time to mourn, but rather to rebuild what the winds of Hurricane Irma tried to destroy.’ Countries including Ecuador, Bolivia, and Russia have stated their intention to deliver aid to the island.”

“Prior to the storm reaching Cuba, the country sent nearly 800 doctors to affected Caribbean islands, according to Granma.”

President Castro’s Public Statement

The previously mentioned statement on Monday morning, September 11, by President Raúl Castro.[5] said “practically no province was spared [Irma’s] effects,” especially “severe damage to [the island’s] housing, the electrical system, and agriculture.”

“It also struck some of our principal tourist destinations, but damage will be repaired before the beginning of the high season. We have on hand for this the human resources and materials needed, given that this constitutes one of the principal sources of income in the national economy.”

“The days that are coming will be ones of much work, during which the strength and indestructible confidence in the Revolution of Cubans will again be demonstrated. This is not a time to mourn, but to construct again that which the winds of Irma attempted to destroy.”

Economic Impact

New York Times reporters talk about the problem of rebuilding tourist infrastructure facing many Caribbean islands, including Cuba.[6] They report, “Travel and tourism accounts for a higher share of the Caribbean region’s gross domestic product than it does in any other region in the world, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, supporting more than 2.3 million jobs. . . . In Cuba, the long-term implications could be even worse. The hardest-hit parts of the islands contain a significant share of its tourist infrastructure and bring in precious foreign currency for the communist nation. Without that, the country loses one of its primary sources of income to purchase items on the global market, including the construction materials it will need to repair the damaged infrastructure.”

On Monday, they report, “President Raúl Castro recognized the importance of resorts to the Cuban economy and promised they would be rebuilt before the start of the peak season, which runs from December to April. The target is ambitious, but with Venezuela, the island’s main economic partner, racked by its own crises, Cuba can’t afford to miss it. The Cuban government announced on Monday that 10 people had died as a result of the storm, bringing the death toll in the Caribbean to at least 37.”

Cuba’s sugar industry, another important Cuban industry for employment and export earnings, suffered significant damage. According to Liobel Perez, spokesman for AZCUBA, the state sugar monopoly,  “Some 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of cane were affected to different degrees” and 40 percent of the country’s mills were also damaged, as were warehouses and other parts of the industry’s infrastructure.[7]          

Conclusion

To meet the huge problem of rebuilding Cuba’s housing and infrastructure this blogger suggests that Cuba rescind its new restrictions on cooperatives that engage in construction that were discussed in a prior post.  Cuba needs all the help it can get as soon as possible.

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[1] Reuters, Irma’s 36-Feet Waves Slam Havana, Winds Pummel Varadero Resort, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuba Sees Devastation as Hurricane Irma Veers Toward Florida, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Waves from Irma Flood Havana Coast Even as Storm Moves Away, N.Y. times (Sept. 10, 2017); Advisory No. 6 from the National Civil Defense General Staff regarding Hurricane Irma, Granma (Sept. 10, 2017); Cuba responds to Irma, Granma (Sept. 10, 2017); Irma disappears the melecón of Havana, Cubadebate (Sept. 10, 2017) (photos of Havana); Irma: The sad trace of an unwanted visitor, Cubadebate (Sept. 10, 2017) (photos of Havana); In photos, trees shot down by Irma in several places in Havana, Cubadebate (Sept. 10, 2017); National Civil Defense Council General Staff announcement regarding deaths associated with Hurricane Irma, Granma (Sept. 11, 2017).

[2]  Instructions from President of the National Civil Defense Council, Granma (Sept. 10, 2017).

[3] Photo gallery: Hurricane Irma Cuba/Sun,. Sept. 10, 2017 , Miami Herald (Sept. 10, 2017); Hurricane Irma in photos: heavy flooding on the Cuban coast, from Matanzas to Havana, Miami Herald (Sept. 10, 2017); Photo gallery: Hurricane Irma strikes Cuba/Sat., Sept. 9, 2017, Miami Herald (Sept. 10, 2017).

[4] Center Democracy in Americas, Cuba Central News Brief Special Report: Cuba Recovers After Irma (Sept. 11, 2017).

[5] Castro,  A call to our combative people, Granma (Sept. 11, 2017).

[6] Ahmed & Semple, In the Caribbean, Rebuilding Nations—and the Tourism Industry, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2017); Reuters, Hurricane Irma Kills 10 in Cuba, Castro Calls for Unity, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2017).

[7] Reuters, Irma Severely Damages Cuban Sugar Industry, Crop: State Media, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2017).