Sandy hit eastern Cuba Oct. 26 with wind speeds of 110 mph, just 1 mph short of a category 3 hurricane, and gusts of up to 150 mph. Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city with a population of 500,000, “looks like a city that has been bombed,” Raúl Castro, president of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, said after touring the area. Castro vowed to remain there until electricity is restored.
Loss of life was minimized due to advance preparation and the work of more than 1,200 civil defense units. More than 340,000 people were evacuated. Most stayed with family and friends; 14,349 stayed at 432 evacuation centers and were fed meals prepared at 278 kitchens, reported the Cuban daily Juventud Rebelde.
Eleven people in Cuba died from the storm. In Santiago de Cuba province, the hardest hit region, 137,000 homes were damaged, including 43,000 that lost their roofs and at least 15,000 that were destroyed. About 52,000 homes were damaged in Holguín province. Power lines were toppled throughout Santiago and Holguín as well as Granma and Guantánamo provinces.
The storm wiped out 245,000 acres planted with sugarcane, banana, coffee and other crops. The hurricane also damaged 895 schools attended by more than 180,000 students.
José Ramón Machado Ventura, first vice president of the Council of State, said that keeping the population informed on the massive rebuilding effort is crucial so that everyone can have a “clear perception of the complexity of the situation” around the country, reported Juventud Rebelde.
To get out information, Santiago’s weekly Sierra Maestra was turned into a daily newspaper the day after the storm. Cars with loudspeakers drove through the streets broadcasting news along with instructions on boiling drinking water to prevent disease.
“Authorities have set up radios and TVs in public spaces to keep people up to date on relief efforts, distributed chlorine to sterilize water and prioritized electrical service to strategic uses such as hospitals and bakeries,” reported the Associated Press Oct. 29.
Reconstruction efforts began as soon as the storm passed. More than 350 brigades of electrical workers from across the island immediately headed to Santiago and Holguín to get power back up. “Convoys of trucks bringing cable and other supplies for the electrical system” of Santiago began arriving the day after the storm, noted Reuters.
“We have to put together a detailed recovery plan in these regions and gather all the kinds of resources that will be necessary,” said Raúl Castro Oct. 27.
Castro announced the postponing of previously announced military exercises to allow the concentration of more forces in the reconstruction effort. Medical teams and extra supplies were sent to the region. The government also took measures to ensure that everyone affected by the storm would receive a basic food basket and extra amounts of rice, sugar, pasta, eggs, crackers and chickpeas.
Juventud Rebelde Oct. 27 reported that 150,000 roofs and 4,000 tons of cement were on their way to the storm-damaged areas. The first 12,000 roofs arrived that day.
Twenty workers from a citrus enterprise in Matanzas went to the Campo Antena farm in Santa María, Santiago, to repair damage there. “When tropical storm Michelle hit [in 2001], we were in a similar situation and we were able to count on hands from Santiago de Cuba,” Orestes Menéndez, one of the volunteers, told CubaDebate. “We’re here to rebuild the greenhouse. We know it’s a hard task, but we came prepared.”
Santiago’s Department of Culture has also organized theater and music groups to tour the province and perform in the evacuation centers.
The Miami Herald, a paper known for its opposition to the Cuban Revolution, took note of the enormous effort. “In a city known for its hospitality as well as for being the cradle of the revolution, neighbors, even small children who are clearing branches, have pitched in to help those with less,” it reported Oct 28.
“They’re concentrating on rebuilding and how they can help each other,” Rev. Luis del Castillo, a retired Uruguayan bishop who now lives in Santiago, told the Herald.