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Havana quickly cleans up for tourists after hurricane, but other parts of Cuba have a problem

Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

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.

"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 Malecon 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 Malecon closures, getting from Jose Marti 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.

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