Havana quickly cleans up for tourists after hurricane. But other areas have a problem

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A report by Mimi Whitefield for the Miami Herald.

Stretches of the famed Malecón boulevard are still closed for repairs and seaside businesses show the scars of 30-foot waves that crashed through the seawall during Hurricane Irma.

But tourists have returned to the capital, even as areas hit hard by the storm continue to struggle.

In the seaside town of Jaimanitas, west of Havana, three vintage red convertibles dropped a group of tourists at the fanciful mosaic-encrusted home of artist José Fuster and merchants on the block sold coconut water, wooden statues and other souvenirs.

Just blocks away, 53-year-old Alberto Sánchez Borges stood in the shell of his home. Irma smashed a retaining wall and washed away the front of his waterfront home.

“I’ve been here nearly 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “The house is not habitable. The water was chest-high when it came through.”

Hurricane debris littered the nearby beach, small fishing boats were tossed like toys against some homes and other houses showed gaping holes in their roofs, but neighbors tried their best to get back to their routines, casting nets for sardines and hanging clothes to dry in ruins of homes.

Closer to Havana in Cojimar, the town where author Ernest Hemingway kept his fishing boat and where the fisherman believed to have inspired “The Old Man and the Sea” used to live, dozens of homes abutting the sea were damaged.

“The water came through the bedroom, destroyed the mattress, and then washed away the front door on its way out,” said Tamara Valdes, who lives in the coastal town.

She and her husband returned the day after the storm surge to clean up. But what worries her most now are the damp walls and ceilings and the home sitting above hers. Since the storm, the precariously sagging ceiling in her front room has been reinforced by boards.

Glancing overhead she said, “I’m afraid the ceiling could fall.”

In Havana, residents described a hellish week after Irma passed. Irma’s winds weren’t that strong in the capital but the water began rising Sept. 9 and pushed about a third of a mile inland into low-lying neighborhoods and adjoining towns.

There was no electricity, scarcely any cooking gas, water shortages and businesses whose interiors floated away. The Fifth Avenue tunnel was completely flooded, neighborhood streets were coated with a mixture of mud and sand, and many buildings had a strange mottled appearance where the water had washed away layers of paint.

It took two days for the water to recede, but then the government authorities, along with residents and business owners, hit the streets. They cleaned, sanitized and repainted. Entrances to tunnels that looked like swimming pools were pumped out and reopened.

Soldiers and Ministry of Interior personnel manned equipment to shovel up the muck in the Vedado neighborhood that was hard hit by flooding. And neighbors themselves got out and scrubbed, residents said.

In grittier Centro Habana, meanwhile, people sat on doorsteps to repair furniture damaged in the flood or hung damp mattresses out to dry. Some of the homes were already so decrepit it was hard to tell three weeks later whether they had been damaged by Irma or were like that before the storm.

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“It is going to be really hard for some people to recover. If they’ve lost a TV and have to buy another in a store, it’s very expensive. They’ve lost furniture, sound systems,” said an electrical linesman. “What we have recovered are electricity, telephone service, but I think there are other countries and Puerto Rico that are worse off than we are. We’re more or less.”

Within a week of the storm, power and telephone service resumed in Havana. And tourists are starting to trickle back in. Evidence of a potential comeback for the tourism industry was apparent in recent days.

Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Norwegian Sky was in port, a group of Europeans on an island bike tour pedaled down the Malecón unimpeded by traffic and guests were back at the lobby bar of the waterfront Melia Cohiba hotel. The high water never reached the 5-star Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski near Old Havana or the luxury shops on the ground floor selling Mont Blanc pens and designer clothes.

Other than a few detours because of the Malecón closures, getting from José Martí International Airport into the city’s tourist areas is easy.

Before Irma hit, the Ministry of Tourism hoped to welcome a record 4.7 million foreign visitors to the island by year’s end. With tourism such an important source of revenue, the cash-strapped government was quick to announce that it was making the recuperation of tourism facilities a priority.

The Ministry of Tourism even took to Facebook Live to communicate the message that the beach resort of Varadero was open for business. Despite some technical difficulties, a young man riding on an open-top tourism bus pointed out the beach, the turquoise water, the sun and other attractions that have reopened.

But Havana and Varadero didn’t feel the brunt of Irma’s fiercest winds. The hurricane made landfall along Cuba’s north central coast in Cayo Romano as a Category 5 storm and it tore through Cayo Coco and the Jardines del Rey area where beachside resorts attract international visitors.

About 5,000 tourists, as well as the dolphins from a local attraction, were evacuated from the northern keys. In all, 1.7 million Cubans were evacuated and there were 10 storm-related deaths reported.

Despite extensive damage to resorts in the northern cays, the government has an ambitious target of completing repairs at most hotels there by Nov. 1 and at the few remaining ones by Nov. 15.

But it will take far longer to recover from other damages inflicted during the more than 72 hours that Irma lashed the northern Cuban coast. A United Nations report says between 210,000 and 220,000 homes were severely damaged, agricultural crops and livestock hit hard, and 14 municipalities from the northern coast of Villa Clara province east to Camagüey critically impacted.

But those who make their living catering to visitors, from taxi drivers to private restaurant owners, were eager for things to get back to normal.

Along the Malecón, both neighbors and workers, were busy pumping out buildings and repairing large holes that had opened up in the highway. Pieces of a wall and large boulders from the sea were scattered around a Malecón ice cream shop with the prophetic name Hola Ola (Hello Wave).

“A señora called Irma came and that was the end of it. She took the windows and the walls,” said Dulce María Corujo as she passed the Coppelita shop in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood. But less than a block away, an agro market was open, where she picked up what she needed to make a salad for lunch.

Many crops were harvested as a precaution before Irma hit and now there’s an abundance of bananas, pineapples, avocados and other fruits and vegetables, but people say they’re afraid that will turn into scarcities in a few weeks. Irma devastated the poultry industry, and eggs are now rationed at just five a month.

Around Vedado, where there are many blocks with multiple casas particulares (private bed and breakfasts) offering rooms for rent, owners are eager to get out the word that they have light, water and food.

Although businesses that opened directly to the Malecón took a heavy hit from the storm surge, repairs at many others just a few blocks back from the sea have already been completed.

The private Camino del Sol restaurant near the Melia Cohiba Hotel closed for repairs for two weeks after the water rose to nearly table height, but last week it was back in business offering homemade pasta and vegetarian fare. The walls had been repainted a crisp lime and white and the tables and chairs were new.

“Alert: It’s just fine to come and visit,” said Niuris Higueras Martínez, the proprietor of Atelier, a private restaurant in Vedado where former first lady Michelle Obama lunched in 2016.

The restaurant had no gas for six days and no power for three days. The front patio was coated with muck. “It was a terrible week, but all the neighbors got out and helped clean up,” Higueras said. “Look I’ve got calluses on my hands from all the cleaning.”

What’s currently lacking at Atelier are foreign visitors, including Americans who account for about 15 percent of her business. Even before the hurricane, she said new travel regulations announced by the Trump administration but not yet in effect have had a chilling effect on travel by Americans.

And so has a travel warning put out by the U.S. State Department that says visitors should “carefully consider the risks of travel to Cuba” in the wake of Irma.

On Friday, the State Department issued another travel warning stemming from mysterious “health attacks” that have resulted in permanent hearing loss and other symptoms in some U.S. Embassy personnel in Havana. It advised against visits to Cuba because “we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk.”

“This is the low season, but a few years ago, there was no low season. It was always the high season,” Higueras said.

Nora Pocquet and Eduardo Altubé, a couple from Rio Negro province in Argentina, arrived in Havana for vacation last week. The original itinerary for their package tour called for four days in Cayo Santa María off the north coast of Sancti Spiritus province and four days in Varadero.

“The tour operator told us Santa María was not in any condition to receive visitors,” Altubé said. So the eight-day trip was changed to two days in Havana and six days in Varadero.

Like most other tourists, the couple took a leisurely stroll along the Malecón from their hotel, the Copacabana, to Old Havana. “I think it looks quite OK,” said Pocquet, adding that the only inconvenience was that sea water had inundated the swimming pool at the hotel and it was closed for repairs.

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