Cuba after Hurricane Irma
My father taught me to respect all people, to be humble and inclusive. Apparently, he taught me to be Cuban. In February 2018, I traveled to Cuba with an International Press Transit Pass, granted to me by the Cuban Government, for the purpose of studying all 9 world heritage sites as an Ecologist journalist. I was given an all-access invitation to the Habana Cigar Festival to flush out my hypothesis that the Cuban cigar is an internationally known, centuries-old example of sustainable environment practices (more on this in later stories). This honor also enabled me to travel the island and study the effects of hurricane Irma. I am grateful to the Cuban government, and the people who graciously invited me into their country, their homes, and their hearts.
While in Cuba I stayed solely in people’s homes, referred to as Casa Particulares. This offered me the opportunity to speak with the people about the effects of Hurricane Irma on their region and their families. Though I had reserved a small rental car, they gave me the largest one they had. I quickly realized that I was the only one in a car by myself in a country greatly utilizing public transportation. I gave rides to over 60 people while traveling across the country, allowing for further discussion on the topic of Irma, and the added insight of seeing first hand the effects of the hurricane along the way. I also spoke with many international tourists about Hurricane Irma. It became clear to me that, to the untrained eye, there were almost no signs of the hurricane only five months after its landfall.
Numerous residents that I spoke with from all around the country applauded the response of their government. They claimed that the government came out quickly to help with rescue recovery, moving and hauling off the people’s collected debris. The people overwhelmingly told me how thankful they were for the soldiers that helped them with their personal situations. This gratitude, along with the common philosophy that the community areas are not just the responsibility of the government but also the community, inspired the people to join the soldiers in the recovery process.
Due to the rotation and direction of the storm, the northeast was hit the hardest. The entire northern Cayo island chain and the beaches of the region were devastated. Most of the country’s small, coastal homes and fishing boats suffered damage, or destruction. Before the storm, the Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve was home to the largest colony of Caribbean flamingos. Rescuers said they had a difficult time capturing these elusive wild birds ahead of the storm and suggest the majority of the estimated population of 70,000 were lost, the country’s largest animal loss. The largest farmed livestock loss was poultry. Chickens are notoriously sensitive to storms. However, I did see chickens with young chicks everywhere I went. This suggests that within six months they will be of age to lay eggs or be a viable meat source.
The entire country had similar problems with the loss of power, shortage of fresh water, and the need to repair roofs. Many Cubans store water in rooftop tanks, some in ground pottery tanks, as a natural part of their water systems. This helped many to avoid water shortages as the waterlines and water cleaning plants were brought back online.
Along the southeast coastline, miles of new electric lines and poles have been installed. The power outages were not solely caused by downed lines, but also from damages to the power plants located along the coastline. Largely unknown to the outside world, the majority of Cubans have electricity. Even palm-thatched houses in the most rural communities are hooked up to electricity. There are also many newly constructed solar farms and wind power installations. While most of the home and road damage has already been fixed, the severity and location of the damage to the coastal roads in the southern Granma peninsula has yet to be reconstructed. The large bridge over the Toa River in the northeast is still under reconstruction due to the destruction caused by cyclone Maria. This work was greatly hampered by Irma.
Cuba’s largest export, agriculture, was possibly the worst loss still in existence. While tobacco and coffee were largely spared due to the Karst mountain landscape that protects the tobacco region of the west, and the biodynamic trees protecting the shade grown coffee, banana trees across the entire country were knocked down by the storm. Banana trees naturally tend to bend over while bearing bunches, so it didn’t take much to decimate most of the nation’s bananas. Many people across the country shared the same story of having to eat bananas for two weeks straight after the storm. They were gone until now. Many young and newly planted banana trees can be seen across the country’s coastal regions.
The northeastern region’s largest two crops are cocoa and coconut. While the non-native cocoa, brought by the Spaniards five hundred years ago, is a low-growing integrated crop virtually unaffected, the region’s major native crop, the coconut, suffered severe damage. The coconut trees are tall and unprotected. Most trees can withstand the loss of numerous limbs. The coconut, however, is different. Once the coconut tree’s single stock is ruined, the whole tree is ruined. The eastern region is full of newly planted coconut trees, which will be the longest crop recovery.
Cuba’s largest crop and export, sugarcane, is grown throughout the country. In coastal regions it is grown for personal use and animal feed. Throughout the entire inland regions it is grown for the production of sugar. Sugarcane is a grass that can be cut repeatedly. Initially the hurricane caused the grass to blow over, making it hard to harvest. Now sugarcane is almost back to full production. A small percentage of the sugarcane crops, along with many other plants, including pineapple, have suffered from over-watering. The deluge of water was welcomed to some degree, due to historical droughts that were taking place ahead of the storm.
There are three important staples that will take a full year to naturally seasonally recover; rice, beans, and fruit. If not for the storm, my visit would have included a much wider variety of fruit. For now the guavas are almost ready for harvest and the mangos are in full bloom, along with many other tropical fruits. The rice paddies have been cleaned, redeveloped and planted, and will take the duration of growth to harvest. I was told that normally at this time of year there would be garbanzo, yellow, white, and countless other varieties of beans. As of now there are only red and black available. Again, it will take the natural seasonal cycle of all these crops to fully recover.
After touring the entire island with virtually no visible signs of damage, hearing the stories of devastation from hundreds of people across the country, witnessing the vast replanting of essential crops and maintenance of once-ravaged coastal roads, I must commend the Cuban people for their resilience, and the Cuban government for their obvious great efforts and dedication to their people. The international community can learn a lot about sustainability from this respectably proud nation. As global climate change persists, so will the frequency and severity of storms like Hurricane Irma, and not just to the Caribbean. Moving forward, the global community will need to evolve and enhance our efforts, not just in response and recovery, but also in our proactive management and development.
*Travelers note, even the most experienced travelers should not attempt to emulate my trip, especially without the permission of the Cuban government.
Ecologist Boyd Smith is available for further information on the effects of Hurricane Irma on Cuba, and how this information can be applied in our own country and community regions.