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.
Hurricane 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.