Special Report: Hurricane Irma wreaks destruction across much of Cuba

11 September 2017

The Caribbean Council is supporting the territories affected by Hurricane Irma. Working with its membership, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Caribbean High Commissions, and the offices of the Overseas Territories, it is distributing information about the many practical ways that it is possible to help the relief efforts now being coordinated. For more information, please contact daniel.gray@caribbean-council.org. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been impacted by Hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Irma, the first category five hurricane to make landfall on Cuba since 1932, hit the island on September 8, severely damaging homes, infrastructure and crops across much of the country over a period of three days.

Some eastern parts of the country remain cut off, parts of the north eastern coastal region are presently without power and communications, and power outages are widespread. So far, no loss of life has been reported. It is expected to be some days before a full picture is available of the damage caused and the likely economic impact.

In an apparent indication of the seriousness of the situation in some areas, National Television News said on September 9 that President Castro in his capacity as President of the National Defence Council had directed that brigades be established to support the restoration of electricity in areas hit by the hurricane. The report said that the storm had strongly impacted the electrical infrastructure of most of the country, requiring Union Electrica, which controls transmission and distribution nationally, to ‘concentrate on specialised tasks’ in vital areas of the economy.

Radio Havana also reported that the National Defence Council had agreed that there was a need to increase levels of information available, and to limit the movement of people and transport in areas damaged by the hurricane.

Although the eye of the storm had turned towards Florida, Radio Havana reported on September 10 that Irma continued to batter the country’s western region with tropical and hurricane force winds, causing the country’s western north coast to experience coastal flooding. It also reported that the country’s western and central regions continued to see strong and locally intense rainfall.

Early reports suggest extensive damage to infrastructure, crops and tourism facilities across a large swathe of Cuba’s northern coast and its interior from the east of the island as far west as Matanzas. With waves of up to ten metres high, the storm surge inundation appears to have caused significant damage to a number of coastal towns and tourist resorts, as well as causing flooding in coastal areas of the central and eastern provinces.

Havana spared the worst but extensive damage elsewhere

Havana was spared the worst effects. By the time its skirt had reached the capital on Saturday September 9, Irma had been weakened by its passage across parts of the country. The then category three storm turned seawards about 150 miles east of Havana in Matanzas before picking up strength to head out into the Florida straits and on towards the West coast of Florida.

Despite this, parts of central Havana experienced flooding up to six blocks back from the sea as a result of heavy rains, high seas and storm surge. Some of the city’s infrastructure was damaged by the 125mph winds associated with the storm. Prior to the hurricane’s arrival, power had been shut off to a number of areas of the city and around 10,000 residents in areas close to the Malecon had been evacuated

A number of provinces and provincial cities including Camaguey, Ciego de Avila and Holguin reported damage to homes, infrastructure and crops in surrounding areas. Baracoa, where the hurricane first hit reported extensive damage to houses, government facilities and its hospital.

Cuba’s civil defence authorities said that they hoped to restore cell phone services and wi-fi coverage as soon as possible after the storm has passed. As a precaution, many masts and dishes were taken down prior to its arrival.

Five days prior to the storm hitting the island, Cuba had activated its extensive civil defence plans, involving the movement of around 1 million Cubans, livestock, medical supplies and foodstuffs to areas of safety away from the coast. In an unusual move, hurricane preparations were initiated across the entire country, extending beyond the provinces anticipated to be in the hurricane’s path. These preparations require state authorities, all state bodies and the military to comply with planned graduated responses. Reuters reported that despite the damage caused nationally, some Cubans expressed a sense of relief that the eye of the Category 5 storm only passed over the northern keys, sparing the mainland from its full force.

Tourism facilities badly hit

In a clear indication of the importance of sustaining the tourism economy, the Cuban authorities provided detailed information throughout the passage of Hurricane Irma, not only about actions to protect citizens and infrastructure, but detailed reporting on the steps being taken to protect visitors.

Although official figures vary, approximately 10,000 tourists were relocated from resorts in the path of the hurricane to alternative accommodation in Havana and elsewhere. Thomas Cook reported that some 2,000 of their clients had been taken from Cayo Coco to Varadero. Canadian companies largely evacuated their clients, while Russia reported that all of its visitors had been relocated and were safe. The Cuban Ministry of Tourism said that there had been about 9,000 nationals and 36,500 foreigners vacationing on the country’s northern coast before the hurricane struck.

First reports say that extensive damage was caused in the cays and tourist resorts along Cuba’s northern coast between central Camaguey and Villa Clara province. Sixteen hotels popular with visitors from Europe and Canada in Cayo Coco and Guillermo sustained serious damage, according to the local authorities. The storm also brought down communications towers and bridges hampering communications. Further reports of damage to tourism infrastructure is therefore expected.

Longer term economic problems likely

Hurricane Irma could not have hit Cuba at a worse time, as by July this year it had become clear that the second half of 2017 would be economically challenging.

Speaking to the National Assembly, President Castro said that “financial tensions and challenges” could complicate the performance of the national economy in the second part of the year and that government was anticipating “possible difficulties in the supply of fuels from Venezuela” (Cuba Briefing July 17, 2017). Prior to these comments, Cuba’s Minister of the Economy and Planning, Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas, had told the National Assembly that the effort required to make the second half of the year a success would be “enormous”.

While it is too early to assess the economic damage caused by Hurricane Irma, the loss of foreign exchange from tourism and agricultural exports will be significant, and the need for capital expenditure to recover and rebuild infrastructure will be substantial.

Although President Putin has said that Russia is ready to help Cuba with emergency support, the status of Cuba’s foreign relations with the United States means that its access to aid and logistical support from external agencies will be restricted, as compared to other Caribbean nations which have been hit by the hurricane. The impact of Hurricane Irma is therefore likely be severe, and is set to cast a long shadow on the economy.

Photo Credit: Antti Lipponen, ‘Hurricane Irma 2017 09 07’, http://bit.ly/2C9X4bA, Flickr

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