As I type this I’m looking out of my window at a sky that is somewhat hazy. I’ve been told it is because of the sand that has been whipped up from the Sahara by Hurricane Ophelia. Shakespeare’s Ophelia merely lost her mind and drowned herself, but today’s press is confirming that the storm of the same name is the most powerful to travel this far east of the United States, and deaths are already being reported in Ireland. In the UK we are getting the very mild remnants of this tropical storm, which reminds me of my experience with Hurricane Irma when I was in Cuba last month.
Our holiday was interrupted by the arrival of Irma a couple of days after we had arrived on the island. Instead of our proposed itinerary we were told that we would be evacuated to Varadera for safety reasons, to a hotel that had been built to withstand hurricane conditions.
Before our vintage American car journey to the coast, we were able to spend two nights and one day in Havana. It most certainly was the lull before the storm and a day in which I spotted this painting of (literally) the eye of the hurricane, which struck me as a piece of ironic art.
Our 1950’s Chevvie dropped us off early in the afternoon and we were advised to prepare for the imminent arrival of what had now been upgraded to a category 5 hurricane, the strongest Cuba had experienced in 85 years. Like other fickle people, Irma had changed her mind and her course and was forecast to pass directly overhead.
By nightfall the humidity had risen and the air was strangely very still. We went to bed, but woke several times during the night, disturbed by the wind and the realisation that the electricity was no longer running, with the subsequent loss of air conditioning and the sudden silence of the refrigerator that was no longer humming. The power came back intermittently, and eventually went off completely. By morning we were awoken by hotel staff bringing us food. This carried on throughout the day, except it started to become cheese and ham sandwiches and bottles of water. With no functioning fridge it was difficult to keep food fresh or drinks chilled, but we all kept calm and carried on – even those who weren’t British.
As the day wore on the winds got stronger and the glazed balcony doors began to rattle ever louder. I recalled King Lear’s speech during the storm in the play of the same name: ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!’
With no power we were rationed candles: one for the bedroom and the other for the bathroom. Some of the guests (we found out the following day) had blockaded their balcony doors (which had already been protected with criss-crossed tape) for protection. Around 5pm we were advised that Irma was getting closer and, as we would now be in her eye, we should spend the next few hours in the bathroom, which was made of solid concrete with no glass, and would therefore be a safer place.
We tried to make the best of things. I took the upholstery cushions off all available chairs and laid them out on the bathroom floor. It was so hot and humid that my other half refused to shut the door, so we couldn’t both lie on the floor. He chose the bath and I stretched out and managed to doze off, awaking some time later to the realisation that rainwater had been blowing in wherever it could, and that my cushions were soaking up the liquid like sponges. What do you do in a dark room with the wind whistling overhead and the rain battering at the windows? We played I Spy until we got bored and eventually tried to sleep some more. Finally (around midnight) the storm began to abate and we went back into our bedroom and attempted to sleep. However the floors were all wet and we were paddling in about an inch of water. At least our windows had not blown in like those of some other guests.
On the second morning we peered cautiously out of our room door to take stock and found others doing the same. We tried to mop out our rooms and were treated to tubs of ice cream and vanilla yogurt. I assume they had to use up the perishable food that could no longer be refrigerated or frozen. A little before midday the hotel staff allowed us out of our rooms and our hotel blocks and we went to investigate the damage.
The structures had all held firm, but cladding and roof tiles had been dislodged. Vegetation had been uprooted and palm trees had lost limbs. As the hurricane approached I had watched the tree outside our balcony waving its arms frantically in all different directions at the same time, like a creature possessed, and now some of those very branches were lying on the grass, exhausted.
However we were safe. The hotel staff had taken good care of us, although the Minister for Tourism visited and gave instructions to close the hotel. With only one generator working out of three there was no electricity or running water and no fresh food. A little over 72 hours after our arrival we moved to another hotel for the duration of the holiday.
We were the lucky ones. Many Cubans lost their homes and their lives, Havana was under water for several days, and towns were without electricity for far longer than we had been.
In the words of my sister after I arrived home ‘Why on earth did you go to Cuba during hurricane season?’