After having landed in Havana, Cuba on January 26, the four of us students were thrilled to be in a bustling city completely new to us. That same day we arrived, we not only had the chance to get out and see the city, we also got invited to a welcoming cultural experience, a live concert with Telmary Díaz and her band Habana Sana. It was only the first day and we were already excited to start our new journeys living and studying in La Habana. The next day, as clear and warm as the first, did not exactly go as planned and our evening plans to go to Las Marchas de Las Antorchas was postponed due to an impending rainstorm. Our Resident Director Angelica told us this, while we looked at a mostly blue sky. That night, the rain poured down around us safe in our Arcadia Residence, where after losing power the four of us sat around some tables and chatted with the casa’s guard, Rafa, who brought out a flashlight and candles for us all. Our Resident Director called to check in on us several times, but we were fine enjoying conversation about movies and music and food, not knowing, like everyone else, what was the unexpected.
It wasn’t until the next morning that it was known that the storm had in fact been a tornado. It had formed over the land and in the midst of a strange weather pattern, even the top meteorologists could not have been able to foresee it. This type of storm is so rare, that the island hasn’t seen a storm like this in 79 years. We learned that the storm had in fact been a deadly category F3 tornado, and as of right now it is known that there were six lives lost and over a hundred and seventy-five were injured. The maternity hospital, Daughters of Galicia, in 10 de Octubre had been affected by the very strong winds as well, but thanks to Cuba’s well-known disaster preparedness, it had been the first to be evacuated and the first to receive help, due to the fact that all the patients were new and expectant mothers.
The recuperation after the storm is a very interesting aspect of this event. Cuba is known for its disaster preparedness through its centralized system that the government oversees. The country is known for the ability to mobilize during a disaster whether it be evacuating areas at risk areas or cleaning up after a disaster. Because of this preparedness, the country always suffers a lower death toll than in comparison to other Caribbean islands. In fact, after only a week electricity has been restored to the areas most affected by the tornado.
This time around, there has been mass mobilization on the grassroots level as well which is a new development. Normally, the centralized government takes full control in the form of the Civil Defense. In Cuba, should there be a natural disaster, all of the various government ministries, from the Interior to Health, have an integrated and comprehensive way of mobilizing, providing health services, and any other service needed to those affected. This time, there were people from all over Cuba who came in buses to help as well; as far as from the Eastern part of Cuba, people paid their own way to come to Havana to assist in clean up. It is clear everyone is doing everything they can, and many people are going through their own closets and donating what they can from their own homes. In addition to this, this is the first time that private businesses have been involved in disaster recuperation and they are now donating food and water. The four of us with our Arcadia resident director Angelica, saw this when we went to volunteer with a group of students from the renowned school, The Superior Institute of the Arts (ISA), and went on a bus full of young Cubans packed with supplies into the neighborhood of Luyano in 10 de Octubre, where we were available to do whatever we could to help. However, we did not receive instructions once we arrived because recuperation is now in the second phase and what is needed most is construction materials to rebuild homes. These materials are more difficult to come by now for a few reasons, and one being the US blockade against Cuba, which we will learn more about during our semester-long course on US-Cuba relations at the Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies (CEHSEU).
A professor at the Universidad de Habana, Profesora Liliana, who a few of us are fortunate to have teaching our Espanol por no Hispanoblantes class, lives in an area of Regla that was affected by the tornado. She had this to say about the aftermath and the willingness of Cubanos/as to come together and help each other:
After having witnessed the resilience and strength of this island nation immediately upon our arrival, us four students are even more excited and grateful for the opportunity to study and live amongst its people. There so much to learn during our time here, and we are looking forward to it all.
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