# 35: Cyclone Irma

5

September 19, 2017 by vivalafiona

Our beautiful little piece of paradise is being destroyed before our eyes. Irma arrived in the north of Santic Spiritus at 5.00am, just as the weather man had predicted. We had a bit of rain over night but nothing that indicated the cyclone was on its way. Other parts of eastern Cuba are in flood we learnt on the news last night before the electricity cut out but we had not been experiencing torrential showers. Since 5.00 am however the animals have been terrified and us horrified at the thud of avocadoes on the roof. We have lost our beautiful chirimoya (custard apple) and a number of our large, older avocado trees, which fortunately have fallen to the ground away from the house, not on top of it. The pergola covered in passionfruit has been flattened by a large avocado branch. There will be few if any banana trees left. We heard the sound of a roof being ripped off nearby and think it might be the fruit and vegetable market on the edge of our property. It is now 10.30am and the winds continue in terrifying gusts swooshing around in circles snapping branches and sending the fruit and smaller branches flying through the air.

 

The day before we cleaned up the patio securing down whatever we could but you can’t secure the trees. They are too big. In hindsight, if we had had a chainsaw we could have trimmed everything but such tools are not available. The house has been a hospital over the last few days with both Ossiel and Erika succumbing to a horrible gastro bug. Just as well I have a very large bag of medicines brought from Australia and donated by kind guests.

 

There has been no electricity since early this morning but fortunately we have a gas stove so we were able to offer our guests, a Dutch couple, scrambled eggs and coffee today. Given that Ossiel and Erika are still on a very light diet we have plenty of food to see us through the next few days. I am regretting the fact we never got round to buying a generator but we do have quite a few candles (thank you Brendan Hammond), a very good rechargable camping lantern Ossiel and I bought on one of our Bunnings shopping spree and a few torches.

 

The house is holding up, with just a few leaks. I keep reassuring myself that it has been standing for over 100 years and withstood similar or worse cyclonic storms. The newer parts of the house, the verandah, the green room and laundry and our ensuite bathroom have concrete roofs with walls made of thick concrete blocks so they should hold up.

I guess it is a blessing that the storm came in the daylight so we can see what is happening rather than relying on our imagination. It is however very sad to be witnessing the destruction of our beautiful garden that has been in the making now for 4 years. We bought the house in August 2013.

 

Because the electricity is out we have no news of what is happening elsewhere in the country now. On the news last night we say the evacuation effort of the dolphins from the aquarium on Cayo Santa Maria. Ossiel and I had booked 3 nights at one of the resorts on the Cayo this week, a much needed break, but cancelled once we knew that Irma was on its way. The north coast resorts were evacuated of all tourists and most workers on Thursday. The Civil Defence have been hard at work evacuating anyone in the immediate path and particularly those near coastal areas. The seas will be huge. Ossiel’s cousin is a general practitioner and he was sent to bunk down with a rural community in the mountains. It is very impressive the way the government mobilises disaster relief before the disaster actually happens. Most of the streets of Trinidad were cleared of any rubbish in the last few days to ensure that drains aren’t blocked and we saw on the news that trees were lopped in many other parts of the country.

 

Our courtyard between the house and the green room is now completely covered in avocados and branches. You cannot see the paving for all the fallen follige. We will probably find a few cracked tiles thanks to the avocado bombs and a shit load of clearing up to do.

We are not sure if the electricity is out because of fallen power lines or as a precaution. It is quite normal to have power cuts during storms. Having lived in Cuba for almost 5 years now I am grown accustomed to being cut off from the rest of the world. No TV due to storms or power cuts and no Wifi ever until Mr Obama did something about that. Now I am wondering why it is that we have never owned a radio. Ossiels father has a wind up radio, a gift from a friend and keeps us up to date with the news and weather every morning. He decided to see the storm out in his own house.

 

It’s now 11.30am and the torrential rain has started, in competition it would seem with the wind, to do as much destruction as possible. There is not much light inside or out so I can’t even read. Should have bought that backlit electronic book when I was in Sydney. Ossiel is sleeping, in the house with the cat and our dog Wombat. Erika and Ysolina are holed up in the Yellow Room, with its concrete roof and I am in the Blue Room keeping our other dog Honey company who is hiding under the bed.

 

Ossiel spoke to his Cousin who lives nearby and does have a radio and learnt that the cyclone remains to the north of us just off the coast of Sancti Spiritus. It is a category 5 storm, now moving along very slowly, and that the winds and rain we are experiencing could continue for another 24 hours. Some of the avocado bombs have cracked tiles on the roof above our bedroom and our bed is now half soaked. I’m currently tossing up between a yoga session or having a beer. Given the cacophany of falling avocadoes (hard to believe there are still some left on the trees) a beer is looking like the better option.

We prepared pulled pork last night so that should see us through the night and our guests won’t starve.

 

It’s now 4.30pm and the storm is worse than ever. The wind seems to have increased and the rain is falling in every direction. I rang a friend who tells me that the cyclone is now headed for Havana creeping along the north coast. It appears that our garden has been completely destroyed. The only trees still standing are the mango’s. All the ornamental plants have been flattened and pulped by camakazy avocadoes. The banana trees are mashed on the ground and all the other fruit trees have toppled over at weird angles or snapped off. I don’t hold out much hope for the survival of our chickens in their house as the wind and rain is coming from all directions. We have more leaks in the roof but it is still attached to the house which is more than can be said for some of our neighbours if I am guessing correctly about the noises of metal bashing about outside.

 

The verandah is covered in shredded leaves and the courtyard resembles a swimming pool full of confettied leaves. We have heard large trucks passing the house and suspect that many people have been evacuated from the fishing village 4 km’s down the road or the hotels along the Ancon Peninsula. The seas will be enormous, well for Cuba anyway, and the mouth of the river spills into the ocean here so Ossiel is worrying about the state of his uncles fishing boat.

 

The cyclonic storm ceased at 7.00am. 26 hours of howling winds and heavy rain. We managed to sleep through the night but were woken very early by frogs outside our door looking for sanctuary. I let the cat and dogs out so they could pee at 6.00am when the rain stopped for a while and to establish just how much destruction had taken place. The ground is just covered in avocadoes and branches. Two of our younger avocado trees toppled and those still standing have lost huge limbs. All of the mature bananas have been flattened. The mangos however are still standing and seem to have weathered the storm remarkably well, thank the goddess. Many of the papaya plants have snapped in two, the cactus ripped out of the ground, all the young guanabana trees have been broken by the force of the wind but the frangipani are holding up. Our ornamental plants near the house have been either pushed over in the wind or squashed by falling limbs and hurtling avocados. Think of 1kg hail stones and you get the picture. It amazes me that they didn’t break more of our roof tiles but fortunately for us they were mostly flung away from rather than at the house. You can tell with what force when you find them half lodged in the mud that was our herb garden.

 

The chickens survived, all of them. Practically a miracle we think and later today I saw a hummingbird which surprised and delighted me. Neighbours and some friends arrived mid-morning to take a look at the devastation and see if they could help with the clean up.

We need ropes and a chain saw to cut through the larger limbs two of which are slumped over the concrete roof of the green room. To my horror some of Ossiels mates arrive with their machetes, my least favourite Cuban male accessory item, and set to trying to hack through the trunks, without a thought about how they will fall to the ground and destroy whatever is beneath. I try to direct the clean-up process and prioritise the search for fruit and plants that can be salvaged rather than creating more mess for us to clean up and thankfully the Dutch couple who are staying with us lend a hand to pick up the avocadoes that are almost ripe. Most of the fallen fruit will have to be thrown away as it is too young and will never ripen. The pomegranates managed to survive as did the guava and most of the citrus.

 

The rains and winds continue throughout the day stalling the clean-up. A truck passes with a loud speaker warning everyone that the winds will continue and to be aware of broken limbs lodged in the trees of which we do have many large ones. All the animals and the Dutch tourists are somewhat traumatised and I feel very sad about what we have lost but pleased that we are all ok and the house is still in pretty good condition, with just a few leaks.

 

The challenge now is how to survive without electricity and now the phone for a few days or more. We are worried about the supply of fresh food down the track. It is certain that crops have been wiped out in the north and central Cuba. We have heard reports of towns being completely flattened and all trees felled. One report suggested that 18 hotels have been destroyed in the Cayo’s/islands. Buildings have apparently collapsed in Mantanzas and Santa Clara and Central Havana has been flooded but I can’t confirm anything yet as we have no TV or radio.

 

As the sun went down last night I watched 2 large avocados swinging defiantly around in the wind apparently refusing to be amongst those flung to the ground. I looked for them this morning and to my dismay I couldn’t see them. Later in better light and at closer range I located them still hanging side by side from a lower limb on what was left of our 60 year old avocado trees. Coincidently one of our Dutch guests had been keeping an eye on them throughout the storm too so both of us were elated that they had survived.

 

I walked into town today (Monday) to get access to wifi and read that Cyclone Irma was a Category 5 storm, the first Cuba has had since 1932. The reports I have seen today do not mention much about Central Cuba. They focus on Havana where huge seas have broken over the sea wall, the Malecon, causing lots of flooding. We are hearing from local reports that huge amounts of rain, an annual rainfall, having been dumped in the mountains behind us. La Boca beach is covered in broken tree trunks and branches. It looks as though huge match sticks have been scattered all over the sand.

 

We still have no power, so no television, but radio reports, coming from Ossiels Dad, indicate that the town of Caibarien, which is the gateway to the Island resorts, had waves rolling down its main street. We have also heard that a country town in northern Sancti Spiritus, Yaguajay, has been flattened. I have passed through this town numerous times and most of the houses are constructed of timber. The river in Pastora, in the valley outside of Trinidad, broke it banks and the farms nearby have lost all their produce. For the farming districts of central Cuba this has been a catastrophe.

 

Walking through the streets of Trinidad I felt that the town had got off lightly considering how long the storm hung around. A very few buildings have collapsed. Lots of trees have been felled and have now been placed in piles in front of houses waiting for the Civil Defence to collect them in old Russian trucks. The trees in Park Cespedes, or what the tourists refer to as wifi park, were completely wrenched out of the concrete pavement but the huge pergola covered in jasmin is still standing. Power lines came down, hence the power cut and I am guessing phone lines too as we still have no phone access. Those few restaurants that have their own generator opened today but the majority of bars and restaurants are closed as are all the music venues.

 

Rain storms continue intermittently and we can see electric storms out at sea.

The town is very quiet and I think everyone is still in shock and worrying about what the immediate future holds. Cyclones like this one can bring hunger to many rural communities and shortages of fruits, vegetables and coffee are certain. Countries like Venezuela and Brazil which have helped Cuba with disaster relief in the past are unlikely to be able to do so this time. Mexico is of course trying to deal with its own disaster and with current politicians being what they are there is little chance of assistance coming from the northern neighbour.

 

It is now Tuesday and we are experiencing torrential rain again. Our guests are still here so I have been preparing pikelets and scrambled eggs for breakfast and trying to keep their spirits up. Ossiel managed to find some bread in the streets. Our fridges have been off for some days and the freezers are no longer working. The electricity returned at 11.00am so now I am madly cooking everything that can be salvaged. There is a chicken cooking in the pressure cooker and I am cooking up mincemeat for spaghetti sauce. The computer and mobile phone has been recharged and Ossiel managed to fix the pipes on the roof and pump water into the tanks so now we have water again in the main part of the house and the kitchen. Fortunately we were able to fill up the tanks above the guest rooms with rain water. Our underground tanks are full to the brim, as I am sure are all the dams and rivers, so water is not going to be a problem in the near future.

 

All our friends, family and staff are alive and well and only a few have suffered any storm damage to their houses. There is lots of animated conversation about personal experiences and reports of how others fared particularly in the north and in Havana. Most people seem to be very surprised at the ferocity of Cyclone Irma. We all expected a lot of rain but not the winds. Few were as well prepared with candles, fire wood or kerosene, as they could/should have been. Cubans have grown used to a regular electricity supply with just the occasional short lived power cut. Once Cubans cooked over wood or fuel stoves but now most people use electric pressure cookers and electric hot plates. Very few Cubans have generators and solar power is rare. A generator and an electric chain saw have now been added to our shopping list.

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “# 35: Cyclone Irma

  1. herriottl says:

    Read your post with sadness and wishing you all well. Hope things return to normal as soon as possible. Stay safe. Best wishes, Lisa (from London)

  2. heidiypi1 says:

    Read this Fi wonderfully written as always, but what a harrowing time for you all watching your beautiful gardens 60 year old fruit trees get flattened and everything else. Loved hearing about the miracle of the hummingbird the next day. Thinking of you Fi hoping you can salvage as much as possible sending you love ❤️, I’ve sent this to mum to read in her hospital bed. Love Heidi

  3. jnwil says:

    Many people are sending praise and congratulations to you for your courage and determination to not accepting defeat in adversity. You Have had yet another opportunity To demonstrate you writing Skills. Maybe IRMA was the catalyst for you to start work on that BOOK you were always destined to write. Things going well at Glenhaven . Thank God for Simon. If Ok with you I will send a copy of your Blog to the Editors of SMH and THe Australian, We are very proud of You. Love from Mum and Dad

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