Cuba interview: Hurricane Sandy almost wiped out entire communities

In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused extensive flooding, damaged buildings and infrastructure and left thousands of people homeless in the Caribbean and United States. I spoke to British Red Cross resilience advisor Maria Clara Attridge, who recently visited Cuba to see how the Hurricane Sandy relief operation is progressing there.

How was the situation when you visited?

Maria: “Reconstruction was well underway. In Cuba, the population is usually very proactive – there is a strong sense of solidarity. After the hurricane everyone was out on streets, clearing rubble and repairing the damage.

“At the moment, a lot of people are still living in temporary shelters and makeshift homes, or staying with family and friends. Although a lot of rubble has been cleared, the government estimates that only 14 per cent of roofs have been repaired.

“The government has been finding solutions for affected families – loans, subsidies and sometimes grants, depending on their situation. The vulnerable are prioritised and the community understands this.”

What does the country look like now?

Maria: “The destruction is acute and still very visible, particularly in city of Santiago de Cuba. It has very old buildings and beautiful colonial architecture. Many – while they look ok from the outside – have no roof, and everything inside has been destroyed or damaged.

“The city used to be very green, covered in trees and squares. Now there are few – if any – trees in the parks. There are lots of homes without roofs, with tarpaulins strapped across.”

How is the Red Cross helping people recover?

Maria: “The Red Cross has been distributing items like kitchen sets, hygiene kits and roofing materials. Initially, tarpaulins were given as roofing materials. But now, as we’re moving into the recovery phase, we are distributing zinc sheets and nails for rebuilding roofs damaged by the hurricane.

“The funds channelled through the British Red Cross by the Department for International Development are mostly being spent on shelter. But, because of a lack of funds, the number of people that the Cuban Red Cross hoped to reach might have to be scaled back.”

How are Red Cross volunteers helping?

Maria: “In Cuba, because of the specific economic situation, volunteers play an important role. Their tasks range from initial assessments and establishing a list of beneficiaries, to aid distribution and follow-up. They come from all walks of life, and quite a few were directly affected by Hurricane Sandy.

“There are currently almost 90 volunteers working on the response. In the early stages there were 1,200 but, once the initial emergency phase passed, a lot of volunteers had to go back to their normal jobs.”

Are people prepared for future disasters?

Maria: “Cuba has been preparing for an earthquake for some time because it is surrounded by various fault lines and is highly susceptible. However, it was quite a surprise when the hurricane hit, as storms tend to hit the west of the island. People do now realise they need to be more prepared.

“As the Cuban Red Cross repairs roofs, it is also providing hurricane straps to reinforce roofing materials. This way, the roofs are much stronger and less likely to blow away in future storms or strong winds. It is also doing a lot of ongoing work to raise community awareness of disasters and how to be prepared.”

What was the most memorable thing from your trip?

Maria: “The town of Aguadores, because of its vulnerability. It is tucked between an airport runway and the ocean. Many people in the community suffer from asthma and choose to live by the sea because of the air quality, but it is a very vulnerable position. Hurricane Sandy almost wiped the community out entirely. The Cuban Red Cross has been supporting a lot of families there, and looking at ways the community could be relocated.

“I was also touched by how much people appreciated the support of the Red Cross – how important it was for them. In Cuba, salaries are very low – around $10-15 a month. Without the kitchen sets and hygiene kits provided by the Red Cross, it would be very difficult for most people to afford to replace household items that were damaged in hurricane.”