Sunday, 12 March 2017

Gibara Reflections

Sometimes a place you visit stays with you. Gibara is one of those places. 

On the evening of September 7, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall in Gibara, Cuba. 

Twelve meter high waves and winds of up to 209 km an hour lashed the coast, flattening homes, decimating crops, and turning whole communities to rubble. 70% of Gibara's homes were damaged, many ruined beyond repair.


Gibara  waterfront September 2008. Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
Gibara- "la Villa Blanca"-the white city- a formerly wealthy and elegant sugar port, known for its bohemian spirit and love of the arts, now a sleepy fishing village of quiet streets and aging colonial buildings. Crushed.

Along the waterfront February 2017
The government had evacuated all residents in the path of the storm. An estimated 2.6 million Cubans-25% of the country's population- got out of the way of the storm. In its wake, seven were dead and there were 7.3 million in damages, Cuba's costliest natural disaster.

After the storm passed through Cuba, it moved on to Texas.  There, residents refused to obey their mandatory evacuation order. Despite being a "first world country", despite warnings of certain death, 200,000 of those under evacuation notice refused to leave their homes. Of the 195 who died in Hurricane Ike, 113 were in Texas.

September 2008 Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
After Ike, the people of Gibara picked themselves up and cleaned up the mess and began to rebuild. They had very little in the way of international support. But they moved on with their lives, because that is what you do.

It has taken them years. 
Downtown Gibara today
Walk the streets of Gibara today and you won't see rubble. You'll see stately buildings,sea scoured and sun bleached. 


You'll see the charming colonial Hotel Ordona and the newly opened Hotel Arsenita, waiting for tourists. 

You'll see stained glass and brilliant paint. You'll find a quaint museum with its dioramas and an enormous whale skeleton. 

You'll find hilltop miradors and cafes with spectacular views. 

You'll find peaceful homestays with lovely courtyards and rooftop patios. 

You'll see the fabulous Cinema Jiba, home to the yearly "Poor Man's Film Festival." 

You'll find older people who smile and shake your hand and thank you for coming to their town with your tourist dollar. 

You'll see dignity. 

You'll see resilience.
Hotel Arsenita

On May 15, 2011, disaster visited Slave Lake. 130 km an hour winds and a massive wall of flame raced through my town. Thousands of people jumped into their vehicles and evacuated themselves without any public warning or formal evacuation notice. There were no deaths.  But the destruction was immense. 

More than 400 homes were lost in the Slave Lake wildfire-a far cry from the 43,000 homes destroyed in Cuba by Hurricane Ike. But unlike the Cubans, the people of Slave Lake had insurance. They had government assistance. My town had millions in donations from people around the world through the Red Cross and other agencies.  

The people of Slave Lake, like the people of Gibara, picked themselves up and got on with rebuilding. Because that is what you do.

Six years on you would not know anything happened in my town. We have buried the scars of our disaster behind the facades of our beautiful new houses and lovely landscaping and brand new public buildings. You'll see no reference to the wildfire, not even in the name of the Legacy Centre, built almost entirely with disaster recovery money.
Ruins along the seawall.

Not so Gibara. 
You still see its scars in the ruined concrete along the sea wall. 
You see the damages in the broken pavements and boarded up windows.
You see the history of their struggle written on walls still waiting to be restored.

Most of all, you see its spirit. 
The spirit of its people who are quietly getting on with life. 
Because that is what you do.