The hidden devastation of Hurricane Sandy

When the storm surges flooded New York on October 29th, and hurricane-strength winds made land fall in New Jersey, wreaking havoc across twenty-four states, from Florida to Maine and as far west as Michigan and Wisconsin, the eyes and resources of the world’s media were already focused on the United States. Hurricane Sandy provided them with excitement, coinciding as it did with the final days of a lacklustre presidential election campaign. However, while Obama and Romney were showcasing their leadership skills in times of catastrophe, little was said about the devastation already caused by this tropical storm far from the vigilance of the massed ranks of international television crews and newspaper reporters. While we are continually being reminded of the vast cost of this disaster, in human and financial terms, to the eastern United States, considerably less has been said of the impact Sandy has had on the considerably more vulnerable islands of the Caribbean.

Path of Hurricane SandyHurricane Sandy formed as a tropical depression over the Caribbean Sea on Friday, 19th October. Gradually gaining in intensity, it had become upgraded to a tropical storm by the 22nd. Increasingly well structured, it changed direction and started its inexorable progress northwards, heading in a direct line across Jamaica and Cuba. On the 24th, just 65 miles south of the Jamaican capital, Kingston, Sandy’s sustained wind speeds went above 74 miles an hour, thereby becoming a Category 1 hurricane, with its eye making landfall that evening.

Not since Gilbert in 1988 had Jamaica taken a direct hit from a hurricane, although Ivan had passed very close in 2004 causing substantial damage. During the night of 24th October, fishermen were stranded on remote keys, roofs were ripped off throughout the east of the island, and electricity was cut for 70% of the population. Although only one person lost their life, an elderly man crushed by a dislodged boulder, more than a thousand were displaced.

But this was merely a foretaste of what would hit Jamaica’s neighbours the following day. Rapidly gathering in intensity, Sandy’s wind speeds reached 110mph (almost qualifying it as a Category 3 hurricane) by the time the storm hit eastern Cuba, just to the west of Santiago de Cuba. Responding with their habitual organisation, the Cuban authorities had already evacuated more than 55,000 people to places of relative safety. It was fortunate they did so, since nine-metre waves and a two-metre storm surge caused flooding along the coast. Through the early hours of the 25th, Sandy cut straight across the island, exiting at Banes in Holguin province, from where it passed through the Bahamas on its continuing path northwards.

Santiago de Cuba now looks like a war zone. According to the local authorities, 132,733 homes suffered damage, of which around 15,000 were totally destroyed while more than 43,000 lost their roof. On his visit to inspect the aftermath, Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, declared that it looked as though the city had been bombed. A further seventeen-thousand houses were affected in the province of Holguin, as the storm ripped through. Eleven people lost their lives. If it were not for Cuba’s practiced, coordinated and disciplined response to such dangers, the toll would surely have been considerably higher.

But the impact will be felt far beyond the immediate cost of rebuilding, and the mourning of those who died. Cuba’s economy is extremely fragile, with the island still trying to claw its way out of the deep crisis provoked twenty-three years ago by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ongoing  limitations on Cuba’s trade imposed by half-a-century of US embargo against the island. Sandy struck at the peak of the coffee harvest, hitting the Sierra Maestra mountains where 92 percent of the island’s coffee is produced. As a result, Cuba is now expecting this year’s yield to be the lowest since the aftermath of the War of Independence, over a century ago. Throughout eastern Cuba, sugarcane fields have also been flattened; and food crops severely compromised.

Most Cubans lead a precarious existence, with little or nothing to fall back on in times of adversity beyond their sense of community and solidarity with one another. It will take those who have lost their homes years to recover, even with the limited help provided by the Cuban state. With Eastern Cuba still trying to emerge from the impact of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike four years ago, this newest disaster perpetuates a cycle of vulnerability from which it is hard to escape.

Even more fragile is the neighbouring country of Haiti. Although Sandy did not pass directly through, the high winds and rains did. Haiti is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake, and suffering a continuing cholera epidemic, and this latest natural disaster left at least 52 people dead, and two-hundred thousand without homes. The Haitian prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, commented that “the whole south of the country is under water.” This was the only part of the country where agriculture had previously remained relatively unscathed, and upon which the rest of Haiti depended. With food crops now severely damaged, the World Food Program has warned of the need for urgent action.

So while the world watches those in the United States licking their wounds, as they elect their President, we should not lose sight of those whose road to recovery from this storm will be far more gruelling, and far more hidden.


32 thoughts on “The hidden devastation of Hurricane Sandy

  1. Thank you for sharing this and informing others about what is happening outside of the US due to the enormous storm. I wasn’t as aware until I read this post exactly how badly other countries were affected.

  2. Although we were not directly in the storm’s path in Panama we had heavy winds and rains for two straight days. There was some flooding in an area not far from us and 750 people were evacuated and there were landslides in other areas of the country. This is to be expected in wet season but because of the media attention focused on North America we tend to forget that other countries were affected. Thank you so much for reminding us that those without the infrastructure to rebuild will be suffering much longer.

    • It would be good if others could speak out about how their lives and communities have been affected – by this and other storms (meteorological or otherwise). Too much is suffered in silence.

  3. The White Maroon.. thanks for much for posting.. a friends family in Guantanamo have been displaced as a result of Hurricane Sandy too.. they lost both the roof and a wall to their house and while we can be blessed that they are safe, their lives have been turned upside down.

    It is such a shame that many of these natural disasters that occur in ‘third world’ countries are not given the media nor social presence that they deserve. At the same time that this hurricane was hitting this side of the world Typhoon Son Tinh was hitting Vietnam, China and the Philippines killing at least 32 people.. yet little was heard about it.. For more details check out:

    thanks again.. great post!

    • Thank you indeed, White Maroon, and thank you WordPress for highlighting this post.

      Although the plight of those hit by Sandy in the U.S. should not be underestimated, I think we do need this story to be told in its entirety.

    • Yes, you are right. The whole of eastern Cuba was directly affected. While our eyes are drawn to the narrow path followed by the storm’s eye, hurricanes have an impact that spreads over hundreds of miles. Often the full scale of the damage remains unknown, even to those who are aware of what has occurred.

      And thanks for alerting us to the typhoon in South East Asia.

  4. Reblogged this on Rob's Writing Page and commented:
    In the UK media, I saw very little on this story, as like with most countries, it was focussing solely on America. I think I only watched one report on what was going on, which mainly focussed on the plights iof the people in Haiti.

  5. Thank you for this. I had wondered about Sandy’s path before it reached the US but did not see any reports until I read your post. Your coverage is clear, informative and unbiased.

  6. It’s the typical way the news works for some reason. I always have to check the news outside the US to find out what is really going on in the world. It’s disappointing how much gets missed. Thanks for updating us and Congratulations for making Freshly Pressed.

  7. Thanks for this information. I was totally unaware of the devastation caused by Sandy before it hit the US. I agree this story should be told in its entirety not just hilighting the US. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed – well deserved

  8. Thanks for the post. I posted about the need for relief in the US, but reminded people that countries less fortunate than us were also hit hard and need just as much help.

    • While not wanting to detract from the impact this hurricane has had upon the people of the US, I do think that those living in the considerably poorer, much more fragile countries in the shadow of the US have somewhat greater need. Not just for immediate relief, but changing the conditions that perpetuate their poverty.

      With the US’s attention turned to dealing with its own problems (both storm impact and economic recession), these other places will not be able to rely on getting the assistance they need from that quarter.

  9. I can relate to this post as my parents live in Kingston, Jamaica and while they were personally spared damage in their apartment, there was lots of damage in Eastern Jamaica. I had planned to go down there to visit them on the day after the hurricane, but had to cancel those plans. Luckily the airport road was not washed out, or Kingston airport could have been cut off from the rest of Kingston for days. One lesson that the US could learn from Jamaica, is that Jamaica pre-emptively shut off the power to prevent damage from exploding transformers etc, and to limit overall damage to the power grid. As you stated Gilbert in 1988 was the worst direct hit in recent times, and luckily Jamaicans remembered that storm and seemed to have learned a few lessons from that experience. Jamaica’s banana and coffee crops were also decimated by the hurricane, including the world famous Blue Mountain Coffee.

    • It’s good to hear that there was a more organised response in Jamaica to the hurricane than there perhaps has been in the past. In recent decades, Cuba has been able to limit the damage through a very well planned and disciplined approach to evacuation – as well as ensuring that the electricity is switched off before the winds strike.

  10. Great Post. I just had this conversation the other day with a friend of mine. We debated what was a “significant event”. Unfortunately, for many North Americans, if it’s doesn’t happen in their back yard….it’s not a significant event.

  11. Thank-you for bringing attention to a part of the world that we in the United States often overlook, that of our neighbors in the Carribean basin. My post on Hurricane Sandy does feature the people of the Carribean as well as New Jersey and New York. Plus I have added some personal family photos and event from as far back as 1938, which my father luckily after rescue lived through. We need to look at all the world when we think of disaster & devastation. For that reason one of my missions and that of my non-profit Extend God’s Love, Charity Society is to go to and find people of need in places that others do not travel to. Thank-you again, Jean-Bernard Cabana.

  12. Heartbreaking damage….thanks for posting to update us who are far from there. Rebuilding is in their blood, they are all strong people on the coast and they are going to shock us all with a comeback! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  13. America is such a large country, I think it is easy for us to focus so much on ourselves that we forget to get informed about what’s going on in the rest of the world. Thank you for posting this. Very valuable information. And to everyone, don’t forget to donate to the red cross for the relief efforts!

  14. Pingback: The hidden devastation of Hurricane Sandy « Make Life Nice

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