by Susan Hurlich
Havana, 3 September 2004
The hand of friendship and support takes many forms.
While Cuba breathes a sigh of relief that Hurricane Frances, which at this very moment is raging towards Florida and South Carolina, has left the Caribbean island untouched, efforts to recuperate from the damages of last month's Hurricane Charley are well underway.
Sometimes the scale of damages caused by hurricanes are so large, they're beyond human comprehension. They need to be brought down to a size one can grasp. When Hurricane Charley, which reached Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale (sustained winds between 178-209 km/hr), struck Cuba on Friday, August 13th, it left behind four dead and over 73,500 houses affected, of which 4,117 were completely destroyed. It also left thousands of hectares of crops devastated, and power, water and telephone services throughout the western part of the island seriously damaged. Estimated damages are over $1 billion.
If one goes to the tiny fishing village of El Cajio, however, just what these immense losses mean in people's day-to-day lives becomes much clearer. Located on the southern coast of Havana Province, between a river and the sea, El Cajio is on the path where Charley first made landfall. It's a community of 1,225 people whose life is based on the sea, and it's an old settlement which goes back to the mid-16th century when it was a provisioning point for Spanish merchant ships.
Just before Charley struck, most of El Cajio's residents were evacuated to government shelters, while a few sought refuge with relatives in Havana. When they returned home, they found that of Cajio's 325 houses, many consisting of wooden slats with thatch or fibercement roofs, only 14 had survived Charley's winds and flooding along with the local grocery store and sturdy cement block primary school. Many people lost not just houses, but everything within them: beds and bedframes, mattresses, clothing, sandals, irons, small gas stoves, refrigerators, fans. Some fisherman also lost fishing nets and boats.
Yesterday, dozens of international journalists accredited in Cuba (in total, some 146 individuals from 34 countries) held a small activity in support of El Cajio. Motivated by a desire to provide a bit of comfort, as well as the hand of friendship, to people who now have to build their lives from scratch, journalists brought donations of towels, sheets, household utensils, clothing, children's toys, etc. They also donated USD $1,665 and 1,041 pesos to help with El Cajio's recovery.
In support of the event, the International Press Centre provided their salons for a modest cultural activity that included well-known singer-composer Vicente Feliu and his 25-year-old daughter, Aurora de los Angeles Feliu, as well as the sale of art works donated by artists such as internationally-known painter, engraver and ceramist Jose Fuster.
Lazaro Jorge Amador Martinez, director of International Relations in the Provincial Assembly of Havana, attended the event and, in his brief comments, said that in his province alone, Charley had affected over 38,000 houses - equal to 20% of the province's total housing stock.
In Cuba, whenever there's a hurricane, government policy is to rebuild people's homes and help them replace their personal belongings free or at subsidized prices. Thus, losses are carefully enumerated: houses, mattresses, household appliances, etc. But full recovery of communities such as Cajio will take at least 18 months.
Similarly, before donated material goods - such as those provided by the journalists - are distributed to those who need them, they are first counted and itemized in the provincial warehouse in Bejucal.
The hand of friendship: it may be small in terms of actual dollars collected and the amount of goods donated, but it's a very human touch.