Cuban youth spearhead recovery from tornado


Leonel, 91, and his wife Pirita, 74, sip coffee amid what’s left of their home neighborhood after the first tornado to hit the Cuban capital since 1940 brought winds of 300 km/h (186 mph) to five districts on Havana’s east side.

It all happened in less than a minute: a noise that sounded like the roar of an airplane followed by chaos. The walls and most of the roof gave way and debris rained down on the couple, leaving Lionel with minor injuries.

Though grateful to be alive, he is stung by the loss of most of the couple’s possessions and memories.

“You pass an entire life, to reach 91, the sunset, and you encounter this,” Leonel says, sobbing.

The bathroom and kitchen are open to the sky and the bit of roof that remains over the living room looks anything but stable.

The Jan. 27 tornado is blamed for six deaths and left more than 200 others injured. A total of 619 homes were destroyed and roughly 2,000 others suffered significant damage.

Roughly 10,000 people have been forced from their homes.

Yet in a little more than two weeks, Leonel and Pirita’s home has been transformed from a heap of rubble to a modular space ready for reconstruction.

The change is the work of 30 university students, including the couple’s grandchildren, who took upon themselves the arduous task of clearing away the debris, salvaging anything that can still be of use and amassing a quantity of bricks and other building materials.

“They didn’t ask when the work would be finished, when they would eat, when they would take a break,” Leonel says, moved by the solidarity shown by the thousands of young volunteers who have mobilized to help people who lost everything.

“They kept working until they couldn’t see, because we had no sun or electricity,” he recalls.

Ana Laura, a 22-year-old psychology student at the University of Havana, recruited 10 classmates to join her in visiting the areas hardest hit by the tornado.

They began by doing their best to lift their spirits of children whose schools were damaged. When classes resumed, the group shifted their attention to the adults.

“We continue knocking on doors, seeing how they are doing, how it’s going for them, what other crises they are going through,” Ana Laura told EFE.

Young Cubans continued to post appeals on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for their peers to contribute to the recovery effort, by offering their time and labor or by donating cash, clothing and food.

“Whoever says that Cuban youth are lost, should grab a toothbrush and wash out his mouth,” Leonel says.


Atahualpa Amerise