Hurricane Irma in Havana (Part 1)

I was first alerted to Hurricane Irma heading for Havana by my mom. Without a TV and constant online access, I hadn’t heard a thing. After she called me, I went online to download some articles and I started asking around.

Over the course of the next few days, I realized how serious the storm was – a Category 5 is no joke – and I started to get prepared.

Cubans didn’t seem too worried. I casually asked everyone – the concierge at Hotel Habana Libre, the cutie at the counter of my favorite ice cream shop, the shelf stocker at the grocery store, my friends out dancing, and my dance teachers – are you prepared? What do you think will happen? Most seemed generally unconcerned (they’ve been through hurricane seasons every year on this tropical island of course), even by a Category 5, but they agreed it was smart to stock up on water and food.

Two days before Irma, the view from my living room. I never would have guessed a hurricane was on its way.

Two days before Irma, the view from my living room. I never would have guessed a hurricane was on its way.

It was clear when I went out shopping that Cubans were definitely getting prepared, despite the unruffled reactions I got. Lines were abnormally long at grocery stores, panaderías (bakeries), and gas stations.

I was very relieved to learn that the Cuban government is known for being excellent at hurricane preparedness. This surprised me and reassured me. My experiences with Cuban bureacracy range from being…ahem…fairly inefficient and inconvenient to “I want to gauge my eyes out”. I was impressed that when it comes to down to life or death, they’ve got their sh** together.

One day before Irma, the clouds started getting more dramatic hitting at what was to come.

One day before Irma, the clouds started getting more dramatic, hinting at what was to come.

So for about four days leading up to the ETA of Irma on Saturday night, I ran around the city getting prepped, while still trying to go about my normal business – dance classes and rehearsal, a doctor’s appointment, even going out dancing at Hotel Florida the night before.

I wanted to make sure I had basic supplies if we lost electricity, gas and/or water – all of which seemed likely.

This proved, unsurprisingly, to be completely exhausting. First of all, it’s HOT. It’s always so damn HOT here! So “running around” means walking through the city in the blazing sun and taking shared taxis with very little air flow, and usually not finding what you need easily.

I tried to go to Epoca, a big supermarket/mall-type store in Centro Habana on Galiano. The lines were CRAZY. And besides a big bottle of water and some juice boxes, there was really nothing to help this vegetarian survive. Typical offerings: one aisle of just vinegar, one aisle of just canned sausages, one aisle of “refresco” (soda), one aisle of ridiculously expensive jam. I gave up and decided to try my luck somewhere else.

I finally found a store in Habana Vieja that had water (yes!! I was really worried about that) and some good staples – e.g. canned tomatoes, reasonably priced jam, juice. As is typical in many stores in Cuba, there are separate counters with these offerings so you have to wait on two to three different lines to get what you want. It is…frustrating. So, I waited 20 minutes on one line for my water and juice. And then 20 on another for cooking staples. In the end, I was relieved though – it didn’t take THAT long and I felt prepared.

An unusually long line at my local bakery.

Hours before the storm, hardly any cars on the streets and an unusually long line at my local bakery.

I also went to the market to get fruits and vegetables that I thought would last without cooking or refrigeration – avocado, tomatoes, cucumbers. And I had big plans to pre-cook a bunch of other stuff the day the storm was coming. That didn’t happen. I bought a pizza instead.

Luckily, I currently have two housemates so we were able to join forces in prepping. The biggest priority was water: boiling liters and liters of water, filtering it (there’s a lot of sediment in the tap water here), and refrigerating it. We also had some water for bathing and washing. And luckily for me, they cooked up some rice and beans.

On Saturday afternoon (the storm was supposed to hit that night), I made my way to the Meliá Cohiba, a huge hotel on the Malecón (the iconic 8 km stretch of roadway along the coast of Havana), in the hopes of picking up a prescription at the international pharmcy across the street. That turned out to be a pointless trip because, of course, the pharmacy was closed! It was right on the Malecón, the street was blocked off and the winds were already really, really strong. Like, you can barely walk strong.

I headed back to Centro to go to my favorite media store – where you can buy all sorts of TV shows and movies for about 50 cents each. I had already started charging up my phones and other devices. I figured if I was going to be trapped in the dark for a while, I’d run down my laptop battery entertaining myself. I felt very proud of myself for being so smart to think ahead like this!

Then I went to the neighborhood panadería to get some bread (soft rolls called “pan suave” that I love and are only one peso each). Apparently EVERYONE else in Havana had the same idea, go figure. There was no way I was waiting on that line. I felt very disappointed in myself for not thinking ahead!

In the face of Hurricane Irma, I had Wonder Woman dubbed in Spanish and Season 3 of Orphan Black – but no bread.

I gave up on getting bread after seeing this line at my bakery.

I gave up on getting bread after seeing this line at my bakery.

And, with that, I was done. There was nothing else to do, nowhere else to shop. It was time to go home and hunker down. And the power was already out.

Part 2 – Irma & the Aftermath
Part 3 – Recovery