Bonnie Klassen remembers the haunting, howling wind. “It was a deep, threatening growl. I had knots in my stomach,” she says. “That wind was purely destructive.”
Klassen, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) area director based in Bogota, Colombia, arrived in Cuba just hours before Hurricane Irma hit. After waiting out the storm for a full 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 miles an hour 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 says.
Klassen says most of the cement houses still had walls, but no roofs. Houses 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 says 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. And she says farmers are lamenting the loss of trees that are 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,” Klassen says. “They were like his children.”
But Klassen says like many of the people she spoke with, the farmer is determined to rebuild. When the wind died down, the clean up began.
“He cut all the big trees down; he had a plan to process the fruit into jam,” she says. “It seemed to empower him as he faced something so devastating and unpredictable.”
MCC is working with a local organization, Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue, in Matanzas province to provide emergency food and shelter, along with support for small-scale farmers.
MCC also is working with the Brethren in Christ (BIC) Church in Cuba to assist congregations in Las Tunas and Villa Clara provinces. These projects will focus on the repair of houses and supply of emergency food. Klassen says after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, BIC churches set up emergency brigades that could respond quickly after a disaster. Those brigades are a major advantage now.
“There’s a huge potential in working with churches,” she says. “Churches are everyday people with diverse skills. They know how to respond and how to get access to things like locally produced food.”
Klassen says as MCC contemplates what’s ahead for Cuba, she focuses on another farmer she met there. He grew roses—it was his major source of income. All of them were flattened by Irma. He described straightening each flower, one by one.
“He did this carefully and gently, because roses are gentle things,” Klassen says. “I am always looking for those signs of resilience. MCC’s job is to support that hope.”
To contribute to MCC’s disaster response in Cuba and Haiti, you can donate online at mcc.org/hurricane-irma. Contributions can also be made by phone, 1-888-563-4676 or by mail, MCC, 21 S. 12th St., PO Box 500, Akron, PA 17501. Please contact Mennonite Disaster Service to support its response to Hurricane Irma in the U.S.
This MCC news story was written by Julie Bell, a staff writer for MCC in Canada.