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Sandor Rodríguez, Cuba Explorer guide and professional photographer, snapped these photos the morning after Irma blew through Central Havana and across the Malecón seawall.
Clean up Vedado

Monday 11 September 2107. Just hours after storm civilians and civil defense personnel alike all pitch in to clean up Havana. Across Cuba millions of people volunteered to help with repairs and tidying cities, villages and farms.

U.S. Passports & International Travel website lifted its advisory against traveling to Cuba. Today’s update instead asks Americans to “carefully consider risks.”

In the opinion of people who actually live and work on the island, and US Cuba tour operators, there are no risks involved in visiting Cuba now. Everything is back to normal. Evidence of the hurricane’s impact on Havana is no longer apparent.

On September 13, the U.S. Passports & International Travel website told Americans it was unsafe to visit Cuba. That information was not correct and very harmful (perhaps intentional) to Cuba’s recovery effort as the island depends upon tourism for much of its income. When the September 13 warning was issued the Cubans had cleaned everything up and nearly all visitor services were then functioning.

Everyday, scores of people ask us, “How is it possible Havana is all cleaned up and back to normal after Hurricane Irma? Our friends in Texas are still cleaning up from Harvey, and there’s lots of work to be done in Florida and other Caribbean nations because of Irma.”

We appreciate and understand our travelers’ questions and concerns. No one wants to spend their vacation in a country ruined by a hurricane. No one wants to sleep or eat in broken non-functional facilities surrounded by streets littered with debris.

Man rescues puppy

Man in Central Havana rescues puppy the morning after storm.

Cuba lies in the route of tropical storms and hurricanes. It gets hit every three or four years with a hurricane. Before the Revolution the island suffered horrible death tolls from hurricanes. The primary victims were rural poor and urban working people.

After the Revolution a new and different approach to hurricanes was adopted. Every person became sacred and was considered fundamental to building a new society. It was understood that hurricanes were unavoidable but casualties and property loss could be dramatically reduced.

The nation developed a comprehensive plan. The success of the plan depended on the involvement of every Cuban. It’s worked pretty well and is being refined constantly. The chance of dying in a hurricane in Cuba is 15 times less than in the United States. No tourist has ever died in a Cuban storm. When Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005 with little government warning the best advice given by its then governor was “run for your lives.” The Cuban approach is quite different.

A people-first plan involves all the people

Men lifting tree

Volunteers remove fallen tree in Havana park.

Education: Cubans understand hurricanes are a natural weather phenomenon to which the island’s flora and fauna have adapted and become dependent upon. Just as forest fires play a necessary rejuvenating role in northern arboreal forests, hurricanes serve the same function in tropical environments. Cubans do not view hurricanes as acts of retribution by higher powers to blame society’s most vulnerable members. However, Cubans are keenly aware that the increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes is directly linked to human industrial activity resulting in global warming.

Prediction: Cuba has trained and supported many scientists to staff the Instituto de Meteorología de Cuba (Cuban Meteorological Institute). This renowned body played a role in the discovery of the origin of Atlantic hurricanes which start as twisters in Africa’s Sahara Desert, migrating westward to the Atlantic, picking up energy from warm ocean currents then moving towards the Caribbean. Understanding the science of hurricanes aids better prediction. The Cuban Meteorological Institute collaborates with European, Canadian and US agencies to share and enhance weather knowledge. Up-to-the-minute information is passed on to other international agencies, and the Cuban people.

Design: Cuban architects and planners endeavor to create improved designs for buildings, both public and private, to better withstand hurricane forces and minimize damage. Interestingly many design concepts follow from those used by Cuban’s indigenous people who had accumulated 5000 years of hurricane survival knowledge when the Spaniards arrived in 1492.

Household items removed

Cubans move furniture to higher ground before storm’s arrival.

Preparation: When a hurricane approaches every source of media is dedicated to explaining in simple non-hysterical steps how to make ready for a storm. Everybody from school children to office workers is involved. Electricity is cut to prevent electrocution from downed cables. Windows are taped to prevent shattering, etc. These and many other measures are taken based on historical knowledge gained from past errors and accidents.

food to shelters

Rice and other food staples being delivered to shelters. One million people moved to save locations before storm.

Man with machete

Man uses homemade machete to remove branches from toppled tree. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

Evacuation: Every community on the island is organized into small units of several hundred people who look out for one another. Each community ensures its members whose dwellings may not survive an angry hurricane are moved to shelters that will provide protection. Tourists and foreign visitors are relocated to stable comfortable structures. Ample food, water, clothing, toiletries, medical supplies and other necessities are allocated for the duration of the storm and beyond.

Clean up and repairs: Perhaps the most amazing final leg of the plan from the perspective of an outsider is the speed at which Cubans recover from a hurricane. The effectiveness and rapidity of the million hands picking up some millions of pieces of debris is stunning. All government vehicles that can haul debris are commissioned to promptly remove it. Everywhere on every street and public spaces citizens of all ages readily volunteer to put things back together. A key component is military and civil defense personnel. As these institutions are a purely defensive apparatus – not engaged in offensive overseas incursions – all of their human resources, organizational wherewithal, and equipment can be dispatched to assist people and their communities.

Within mere days following Irma’s assault on Cuba there is very little evidence the mighty storm smacked Havana. A first time visitor would hardly know it occurred.

So when we say Cuba’s up and running and ready to welcome you, we are serious.

USA Today reports the “US government is providing humanitarian aid to a string of Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma, but Cuba – just 90 miles off the coast of Florida – is not among them.”

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Cuba was the first nation to offer help. It readied thousands of volunteers and huge amounts of equipment and emergency supplies to assist – all costs borne by Cuba. G.W. Bush rejected the island’s magnanimous offer despite the human catastrophe unfolding in Louisiana at the time.

Compassion and parsimony

While Cuba is recovering from Hurricane Irma it’s sent hundreds of doctors and medical supplies to neighboring islands who suffered worse.

The US Guantanamo military base and prison camp in eastern Cuba is stocked with hundreds of millions of dollars of food, medical supplies and building materials. Yet base brass have not shared a single bottle of drinking water with Cubans just outside the base’s fenced perimeter.

Other nations are providing aid to Cuba including Canada, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Panama, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, China, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Russia, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Cuba’s economy depends upon tourism

As of today the US Department of State maintains a vindictive travel warning for Cuba advising Americans not to visit. Meanwhile millions of Cuban volunteers have cleaned up most evidence of Hurricane Irma’s passing. Tourists from other countries are flocking to the island.

By denying aid to innocent Cubans and discouraging travel to Cuba, Washington is again using a humanitarian disaster to punish island people for refusing to accept US meddling in their affairs.

Nonetheless Americans are preparing to visit Cuba in big numbers in the coming months. Conscientious travelers understand social tourism is an overture of humanitarian and economic aid. They want to maintain the newfound spirit of US-Cuba cooperation ushered in during Obama’s presidency.

Cubans are ready now to welcome and embrace the arrival of all American guests.

For all travelers who simply register for a Cuba tour between now and October 31, 2017, Cuba Explorer will give $150 of your tour payment to the Office of the Historian of Havana who will ensure 100% of your dollars are directed to emergency services people in Old Havana and in other Cuban cities. Registration must happen between now and October 31, 2017. Travel can take place any time in the future.

A certificate of contribution and kindness will be issued to every one who helps at any level.

In Cuba we are really sad and appalled at the US Department of State travel warning for Cuba issued on September 13, 2017.

It is totally out of date and incorrect. As of today there is very little evidence of Hurricane Irma’s passing through the city of Havana. And thus every reason to visit Cuba now.

Let’s hope the US Department of State updates this punitive, dated and false information.

Sorry for the update delay. We’ve had some electrical and internet outages. We are ok in Cuba.

Last week, Irma barreled across Cuba’s northern coast as a category 4 and sometimes 5 hurricane. It felt like being tied to train tracks with an unstoppable locomotive approaching. There was no escape.

Likely everything you saw and read about the extent of devastation on the island is true. Irma thrashed Cuba beyond predictions. Havana was spared a direct hit but suffered greatly. Parts of the Capitol looked like a movie set from an apocalypse flick. It was our worst storm in 85 years.
Ten people died. Several from failure to evacuate, but most from freak accidents – being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The number of fatalities would have been significantly higher without Cuba’s incredible people-first hurricane preparedness system.

Cubans are up and running

Everywhere in cities, villages, farms and resort communities, cleanup and repairs are underway.

With the same verve and resilience with which Cubans embrace life, they’re rapidly making schools, clinics, homes and workshops habitable again. In the spirit of cooperation, millions of volunteers have ridded streets of debris and toppled trees. Electrical and telephone cables have been rehung, and roofs and walls patched. What has been lost is no longer apparent as evidence of its prior existence has vanished.

Irma was not able to tarnish the luster of the grand colonial buildings, blow away ancient historic sites and tropical forests, nor thwart the ubiquitous music and effervescent charm of the Cuban people.

The word hurricane derives from the Taíno Indian term hurakán. Definition: God of the storm. This deity of Cuba’s first people was harsh yet forgiving. In a nation where there is so little to lose materially, hurakán spared the lives of thousands.

Two ways to help Cubans in need

Having little to lose means a lot when you lose everything. Significant help is needed. Cuba’s appeal is this: the best help from friends abroad is to visit Cuba now.

For those unable to visit soon, a monetary donation towards medical, school and building supplies will make a huge difference.

Our organization, based in Cuba, the United States and Canada, is fully committed to help and we invite you to join with us.

If you can’t come to Cuba now, but want to contribute, we’ll give every dollar of your donation to the renowned Office of the Historian of Havana. This United Nations supported organization is responsible for the restoration of Old Havana. It provides essential services to its residents including housing, medical clinics, child care, old age homes, cultural programs for disabled people and seniors with Alzheimer’s, among scores of other humanitarian projects. Every penny of your generosity will be used for Cubans most in need.

You can donate here

For travelers who register for a Cuba tour between now and October 31, 2017, we’ll give $150 of your tour payment to the Office of the Historian of Havana who will ensure 100% of your dollars are directed to emergency services people in Old Havana and in other Cuban cities.

A certificate of contribution and kindness will be issued to every one who helps at any level.

We welcome your questions and expressions of support.

Please share this message with your friends, family and co-workers.

Warm regards from Havana,
Staff, friends and families of Cuba Explorer

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