Hurricane Irma charged through Cuba last weekend, demolishing buildings, uprooting trees, and leaving 10 dead in its wake. The Category 5 storm had winds as fast as 160 miles per hour when it made landfall in Cuba, making it the most powerful storm to reach the island since 1932.
The amount of damage to the country’s infrastructure and industry was devastating. In the aftermath, some people are mourning, many are rebuilding, and some are just enjoying the feeling of relief brought on by clear skies.
Hurricane Irma made quick work of many historic Cuban buildings. A fair number of these buildings had fallen into disrepair, with cash-strapped government agencies and tenants with low state salaries unable to keep up with repairs or maintenance. Some buildings were submerged by flooding, and others were completely toppled by the sheer force of Irma’s winds.
The majority of the death toll came from already-decrepit housing collapses. In one case, a balcony crashed down onto a bus in central Havana, killing two 27-year-old women. “We’ve been trying to fix things for years. It’s a shame that maybe they’ll come now, only after two people have died,” said Laritza Penalver, a 49-year-old woman from Havana.
President Raul Castro addressed the nation on Monday, calling for Cubans to unite in swiftly rebuilding the nation. Although authorities have not yet been able to assess the full extent of the damage, Castro noted the significant damage to the country’s electrical system, the agricultural industry, and housing. “The task we have before us is immense but,” Castro said, “with a people like ours, we will win the most important battle: the recovery.”
With Castro stepping down early next year, the recovery effort could be a make-or-break moment for the ruling Communist Party at a potentially pivotal moment in the country’s political history. Citizens will vote in local and national elections later this year.
Castro also touched on the tourism industry in his speech, one of the country’s main sources of revenue: “The storm hit some of our principal tourist destinations, but the damage will be repaired before the high season.”
On some coastal resorts, it seems that tourists are already one step ahead of him. In the coastal resort of Varadero, the mostly-British tourists helped clean up the area Sunday morning after Irma passed by. Josephine Breslin, a 49-year-old tourist visiting from the UK, expressed her relief: “I think the atmosphere now is relief, knowing it is past and the building is still there and everyone is OK. You can feel people are settling down, the winds are going, the sun is coming out, it’s business as usual. Cuban rum? Yes please!”
Breslin and others took note of the care that their Cuban hosts provided to them during the storm, and reciprocated the kindness by pitching in to help clean up in the aftermath. After a scary experience, Breslin is unfazed, saying that “I will come back to Cuba, because the Cuban people are lovely.” And tourists weren’t the only ones who took the storm in stride; Havana locals were seen diving into flood streets, paddling around, and wading through waist-deep water to pick up rum from shops.
Irma’s devastation is in plain sight to the people of Cuba, and for some, the storm brought tragedy that no words can erase. But in the aftermath of Irma, most people seem thankful that the storm wasn’t as bad as it could have been, given its (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime power.