Hurricane Matthew leaves a trail of destruction and tears in eastern Cuba
By Maria Lozano, ACN
Königstein/Guantanamo, 17.10.16. “Really, I don’t know how to begin to describe what we’ve been through in the last few days”, writes Bishop Wilfredo Pino Estévez of the diocese of Guantánamo-Baracoa in Cuba in a message addressed to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in the wake of a Category 4 Hurricane Matthew, which tore through the eastern part of the island in the space of a few hours during the night of Tuesday 4 October. “Thanks to God and to the system of solidarity and civil evacuation which Cuba has operated for years, there were no deaths, but the destruction was enormous.”
“Fortunately, all the people were evacuated in time or took refuge in caves underground shelters (there were 32 people crammed into just one of these). A few people stayed in their homes, believing they would withstand the storm, and fortunately they were not mistaken. I was pleased to see that the new church of the Seventh-day Adventists on the highway in Sabana had survived intact. Until very recently it was made of wood, with a lightweight roof, but now they have built it in concrete blocks and with a concrete roof. They sheltered from the hurricane there, and several dozen people were saved as a result”, the bishop explains.
The damage was particularly severe in the towns of Baracoa, Maisí and Imías, where many of the houses were left without roofs or completely destroyed. After the hurricane had passed over, the first and only desire of Mgr Willi, as his people call him, was to visit the faithful and console the afflicted. So he set out at first light on a difficult and dangerous journey. “On arriving at a familiar place like the Bate-Bate (a coastal highway) I found the road had been destroyed and the fury of the ocean had brought down mountains of sand and rocks of different sizes that were blocking the route. After exhausting ourselves trying to move the rocks so that we could get the car through, we tried to navigate a nearby slope… and got stuck fast. It took us three hours to get out of it. We were rescued by three men. We will never forget their kindness, because they were soaked to the skin by the rain that was still falling, and covered in mud. May God reward them. We were able to continue after that and visit the communities of San Antonio, Imías and Cajobabo and talk with the priests, religious and laity. In Cajobabo we were told that 75 people had survived the hurricane in a shelter, and we witnessed the first tears. The truth was that as we drew closer to Baracoa, the damage was clearly getting worse.”
Bishop Wilfredo spent almost 20 hours getting to Baracoa, a major Cuban city, now reduced to rubble in some places. “We got there, thanks to the hand of God and thanks also to other helping hands. As we began to climb La Farola, there were many rocks over the road. We manhandled them to one side and so we were able to move forward. Behind us there was another vehicle of the provincial and national authorities. Together we were pursuing the same objective, namely to get to Baracoa. A little further on there was a group workers waiting for the authorities with chainsaws, etc. And they were beginning to open up the roadway. We joined on at the tail of the caravan, and in this way we continued until we almost arrived at Baracoa. An enormous landslide made it impossible to continue any further. But the people were also coming from Baracoa to meet the authorities and they invited me, if I wished to, to climb over the landslip on foot and continue on to the city in one of the jeeps they had brought. Since my objective was to arrive at Baracoa, even on foot if need be, I did not hesitate for a moment. Thanks to this gesture I was able to reach Baracoa. On reaching the city I could already see the damage. Our church in Cabacú, dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, was reduced to ruins. The only thing still standing was the back wall. I was finally able to enter the parish centre of Baracoa at 1.30 a.m.”
As for Maisí, the last of the towns damaged by the hurricane, Bishop Wilfredo was only able to reach it two days later, after two failed attempts, since the roads leading to it were impassable. In one case owing to a broken bridge and in another because of fallen trees and fallen electricity posts. According to the local newspapers, over 1,000 of these posts had been brought down in the province and 80% of the homes affected in Maisí alone. “Certainly, I was expecting the worst, because, according to my simple calculations, the right flank of the hurricane must have passed over there, which, as it was explained to me, was the most powerful. And in fact that is what I found. I do not think I’m exaggerating in saying that Maisí has been destroyed. There are pictures of houses that have collapsed that remind me of the photos we all saw at the time of the earthquake in Haiti.”
And so the local Cuban Church is committed to “lifting up hearts and souls” and to “listening to them tell their stories and hearing on their lips their gratitude to God that they are still alive – which is the most important thing, since the material aspects can be sorted out”, says the bishop, adding, “We have to gather up their tears, lift up their hearts, bring them hope. We have to do what the Apostles did and say what the Apostles said: “We have neither gold nor silver, but what we have we will give” (cf. Acts 3:6).
Though not of course forgetting to back up this spiritual support with human support – giving food to the hungry… And indeed, the local Church and the staff of the diocesan Caritas Guantánamo are very active in identifying “the most vulnerable, as a result of illness, invalidity and age, and bringing them a little relief and a little food, some soup, rice, a few biscuits with guava. Yesterday, in fact we picked up a man, wandering along the road, looking for his family members, and he confessed to us that he had been walking for two days without eating and one night without sleeping… The diocesan truck is going from one place to another, bringing what the other dioceses are able to send us – biscuits, rice, beans, water, sausages, sardines, oil, soap, detergent, candles, matches, etc.”
In the midst of so much suffering, Bishop Willi also tells of moments of encouragement and hope. In circumstances such as these, suffering unites people. The Cuban people, who already show great solidarity by nature, have shown themselves still more so. “They told me how, as the hurricane was passing through, Protestants and Catholics who had taken refuge in the same place had grade together for the first time in this town. And there was also a lady who told us how, while the hurricane was raging, “we prayed the Lord and sang and prayed that he might leave us alive, even if everything was destroyed.”
ACN has already assured its prayers and its emergency support for the local church in Cuba and for the work of rebuilding. “It is true that we have images imprinted on our retinas that are difficult to describe, but at the same time there is so much we have to be grateful for to so many concerned and supportive people who are praying and have been praying for us, who have promised us aid or have already sent it!”, the bishop writes to ACN.