ISABELA DE SAGUA, Villa Clara.–A few hours after Hurricane Irma had passed through the coastal town of Isabela de Sagua, I toured the desolate area, and I confess that what I saw called to mind sites following WWII Nazi bombings.
Houses, schools, stores destroyed; electricity and communication poles downed; and mud everywhere. The most upsetting aspect was to see people mourning the loss of their homes and most of their possessions, after so many years of effort. I will never forget the faces of women and children wracked with sadness, and those of several men choked up and speechless.
I wondered what had become of Isabela, a community famous for its happy people, of picturesque little houses, and many other virtues. I could not imagine then that just a month after Irma struck, the scene would be so different, thanks, among other reasons, to the efforts of the people who live there and the solidarity that reigns among Cubans, many of whom descended on this town like another hurricane of measurable intensity, to assist with the recovery.
No one can imagine that all the wounds left by Irma have been healed, which will require months and perhaps years of hard work. Still visible are debris yet to be collected, collapsed homes, the remains of walls to be torn down, roofs to be assembled, and resources to distribute, but the progress made is noteworthy, and the people here appreciate it.
One of the locals I was able to interview in the aftermath of Irma was Mileidy Soriano Monteagudo, who lost her home in addition to all the possessions inside. Her photo, weeping as she clung to a piece of wood from what was once her house, said it all. However, meeting her again on October 10, she was transformed. There was joy in her eyes, and for good reason. She had already received most of the materials required to repair her home, including the roof, metal beams, cement, sand and other resources; and if that were not enough, a brigade of workers from the Héctor Rodríguez Sugar Enterprise were helping her rebuild.
“I never thought that in such a short time I could have my little house again. I always trusted that I would not be left homeless, but I also thought that because of the scale of the damage, it would take months or years; but I was wrong. The help has been overwhelming; I can not find another word to describe it. Do you know how much a private worker wanted to do this reconstruction? 5,000 pesos (CUP). Luckily, the wonderful people of the Héctor Rodríguez appeared, who are not going to charge me a penny for the work. And that’s without counting the large amount of supplies delivered, most of them for free and others at half price,” Mileidy explained.
Meanwhile, Yanelis Paso Leal, another of the Isabela residents affected by Irma, is being assisted by a brigade from the Sabino Pupo Agricultural Production Cooperative, from Cifuentes. “These guajiros accustomed to sowing the land, can’t know that much about construction, but they work like lions. They dismantled the entire roof, collected the rubble, and to help us, they even shared their snacks and lunch with us,” she noted.
President of the cooperative, Pedro Pérez; Jesús Aroldo Díaz Moya, an agricultural worker who is now working as a carpenter; and Humberto Ramos, head of the brigade, among others, stated that this has been one of the most beautiful tasks they have undertaken, as the locals can not rebuild their community alone. They highlighted residents’ gratitude, demonstrated on offering them a cup of coffee, a glass of cold water, or a snack every now and again.
On leaving the homes of Mileidy and Yanelis, we were stopped by Fidel Cuadrado Fernández, another of those whose houses were damaged by the hurricane, who wanted to express his appreciation for the rapid assistance received. “I have already been given the 11 zinc roofing sheets and the four purlins required, it was a swift process, I’m really pleased with everything. Just imagine, they even offered a free truck to transport the materials,” he stressed.
As we walked through the streets still muddied by the recent rain and the debris people continue to remove from their homes as they rebuild, we saw Nadiel Rivero Alfonso in the distance, a fisherman doing a balancing act along the roof of what will be his new home, attempting to lay down the fibro-asphalt roofing sheets he was supplied, to create this temporary shelter.
“I was among those whose homes suffered total collapse. I lost everything. That’s why I was given priority to build this little house, where I could temporarily live together with my mom Adela until I get something better. I’m almost finished, I plan to move in over the weekend. And I have enough inside. They provided us with mattresses, a dining table, an induction cooker, bedspreads, sheets, towels and many other supplies,” he stated gratefully.
Someone passes by Nadiel’s house and suggests that we visit the home of Ángela Adolfina Ruiz Pons, a woman you don’t want to mess with, as the locals say. We head that way and at the door of her home, she sharply asks: “What do you want to know, journalist?” Just for you to tell me how the recovery is going, I respond, half jokingly, half seriously, while the men placing fiber cement tiles on her roof laugh out loud.
“Look, when we got here after the cyclone, we had to make it pretty so we could get in. Everything was destroyed and muddied: the television, the mattresses, the stove, the beds, the pots, here nothing was spared. We had left almost everything up on the tables but it was in vain,” Ángela explained. Her expression changed as she began to talk about the help she received in the days following Irma.
“I already have mattresses for us and the girls; we have been given towels, sheets, pots, an induction cooker with all the pans and a coffee pot, plus what’s needed to fix the roof which was the part most damaged. The truth is that the government has really come through for the residents of Isabela, I’m very grateful. Note that most things, as they are donations, have been distributed free; and the rest, at half price or on credit. For example, I bought my roof through a loan payable over 15 years. What more could I ask for?” she noted.
NO TIME TO LOSE
The scale of the damages in Isabela de Sagua tested the organizational capacity of authority structures at all levels, from the provincial level right up to the highest defense agencies. Despite the initial shock, nothing could prevent solidary assistance in terms of water, food, power generators and other vital resources from reaching the affected areas.
Another sign of the extent of the assistance deployed was that just 72 hours after the hurricane, technicians from Copextel and the Technical and Specialized Services Company were able to repair 174 damaged televisions, 455 refrigerators, 85 washing machines, 101 pressure cookers, 180 electric stoves, 48 fans and 14 digital TV converter boxes, in addition to distributing a telephone to each resident family with a landline.
Likewise, a crib and mattress were granted to all mothers with children up to three years of age, as well as guaranteeing these resources to all women due to give birth soon, according to Dayana Pérez Antúnez, an industrial market employee in the territory, who added that all persons who are bedridden, pregnant, or over 65 years of age have received goods such as towels, bedspreads, sheets, buckets, brooms, soap and detergent, among other articles.
Likewise, each family received several products from a World Food Program donation, including rice, beans, canned meat and other items; while over 1,500 mattresses, 567 bathroom fixtures, and 535 housewares have been distributed, according to Digna Morales, director of Commerce in Villa Clara.
In addition, to date 3,520 zinc and more than 4,500 fiber cement roofing sheets have been distributed, as well as other materials. This speaks volumes about the enormous efforts made by those working in processing and distribution offices, with the majority of the population recognizing the high levels of organization and swift response; in contrast to the disorder stemming from the overwhelming damage during the initial days following Irma.