Bonnie Klassen remembers the haunting, howling wind.
“It was a deep, threatening growl. I had knots in my stomach,” she said. “That wind was purely destructive.”
Klassen, Mennonite Central Committee area director for South America and Mexico, arrived in Cuba just hours before Hurricane Irma hit. After waiting out the storm for a day, she headed to the north coast where the damage was most severe. Klassen traveled — by vehicle, motorcycle and sometimes on foot in rubber boots — and listened as people described a storm that packed winds of more than 155 mph and seemed to hover for hours.
“A lot of them talked about the sheet metal on their roof lifting up and then banging down. Over and over for hours. Until it just blew away,” Klassen said.
Most of the cement houses still had walls, but no roofs. Those made of wood were tilted or gone altogether, the remains mixed with household items like dishes.
Corn, plantain and bananas are common foods in Cuba, and Klassen said they were flattened by the storm. Fortunately, beans, another common crop, had not yet been planted.
Klassen drove past orange and lemon groves where the ground was littered with fruit, most of which cannot be salvaged. Farmers are lamenting the loss of trees decades old.
“We visited one farmer who had 55 kinds of trees and plants. When the hurricane came he boarded up his windows because he couldn’t stand watching his trees die,” she said.
But Klassen said the farmer, like many of the people she spoke with, is determined to rebuild. When the wind died down, the cleanup began.
“He cut all the big trees down, he had a plan to process the fruit into jam,” she said. “It seemed to empower him as he faced something so devastating and unpredictable.”
Local church teamwork
MCC is working with a local organization, the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue, in Matanzas province to provide emergency food and shelter, along with support for small-scale farmers.
MCC is also working with the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba to assist congregations in Las Tunas and Villa Clara provinces. These projects will focus on repairing houses and supplying emergency food.
Klassen said that after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Brethren in Christ congregations set up emergency brigades that could respond quickly after a disaster. The brigades are a major advantage now.
“There’s a huge potential in working with churches,” she said. “Churches are everyday people with diverse skills. They know how to respond and how to get access to things like locally produced food.”
As MCC contemplates what’s ahead for Cuba, Klassen focuses on another farmer she met there. He grew roses as his main source of income. Irma flattened all of them. He described straightening the flowers one by one.
“He did this carefully and gently, because roses are gentle things,” Klassen said. “I am always looking for those signs of resilience. MCC’s job is to support that hope.”