Irish in Caribbean batten down hatches as Irma approaches

‘For the believers among us, it is a good time to pray’

A man fixes a car next to the shore in Cap Haitien, Haiti on Thursday. Photograph: Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters

Hurricane Irma has ripped through the Caribbean, killing at least 11 people and causing widespread damage. Winds of up to 300km/h have lashed islands including Barbuda, St Martin and the British Virgin Islands, as the storm heads northwards towards Florida.

While waiting for the storm to hit, readers living in the affected region have told Irish Times Abroad about preparing for one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century.

Brendan O’Driscoll, Havana, Cuba: ‘Cubans seem much calmer than us expats’

It was 1981 when Chris De Burgh warned us that "there was nowhere here to hide, waiting for the hurricane". "Here" for me in those days was Cork City, and hurricanes were not high on my list of things to hide from (the bank manager, Kerry footballers, Tipperary hurlers). But things change, and I now find myself in Havana, waiting for Hurricane Irma to hit us on Saturday.

Irma is a savage beast, a Category five (the highest) storm, and one of the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic, with wind speeds of up to 300km/h. This is a storm that devastates communities, destroys houses, uproots trees and flings cars around as if they were toys; and generates massive flooding. We have already seen its deadly effects in Berbuda and other Caribbean islands, and now it is heading for Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba. Florida is in a state of emergency, and Key Largo is crowded with people as they evacuate the entire Florida Keys.

Brendan O’Driscoll in Havana: ‘We will soon experience the full extent of Irma’s power.’

If there is an upside to hurricanes, it is that they move slowly, and people usually have enough time to flee or prepare. In Havana we are preparing. This means stocking up on essentials to see out the storm.

For at least two to five days, there could be no power, no water, no phones, no wifi, no fuel, no shops. The authorities will first shut down the electricity supply, and, after the storm passes, repair fallen power lines and other utilities before restoring power.

So, we have stocked up with two weeks’ supply of drinking water, dry and tinned food, batteries and other necessities. On Friday we will fill baths, hand-basins and other receptacles to provide us with water for washing and toilet use. The most vulnerable windows will be covered and nailed down with plywood.

But what of our Cuban friends and neighbours? I asked my Spanish teacher and advisor on all things Cuban, about her preparations. “What preparations?” she asked. “For the Hurricane of course,” I replied. “Oh, they usually turn north before they reach Havana. Now, let’s revise the Past Pluperfect for Irregular Verbs.” I cannot say with any certainty that she wasn’t pulling my leg, or that we got lost in translation, but I do know that Cuban people are well used to hurricanes; and that they share our Irish mantra - ah, ‘twill be grand.

The government here has an enviable reputation for dealing with hurricanes, and we witnessed them in action when Hurricane Matthew hit eastern Cuba last year. They have protocols, alerts, warnings and instructions. People were well informed; the entire co-ordinated state machinery, central and local, went into action, and vulnerable people, including tourists, were moved to safe buildings where their basic needs - safety, shelter, water and food - were met. While many people died in nearby Haiti, there were no fatalities in Cuba. Cubans seem much calmer than us expats. While we fret and fear what is coming at us, they just go on with their daily lives: or at least prepare with less of a fuss.

But Matthew was a lightweight compared to the onrushing Irma. We will soon experience the full extent of Irma’s power. We are hoping it will veer north before reaching Havana. My primary concern of course is for people’s safety. But if Havana gets a direct hit it could simply devastate Old Havana, with its beautiful old buildings and classic cars. For the believers among us, it is a good time to pray.

The worst-affected island so far is Saint Martin. Photograph: Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP/Getty Images

Jacinta McGuane, Port-au-Prince, Haiti: ‘All you can do is just stay in bed to be safe’

I’ve been living in the Caribbean for seven years; one in the Dominican Republic and six in Haiti. So I’ve experienced Hurricane Isaac, Sandy, Matthew and Nicole.

I am based in Port-au-Prince, where I train special needs teachers to work in the Kay Ste Germaine special needs school and rehabilitation centre.

At the moment there isn’t a whisper of wind. We have friends in the north and they are starting to feel the wind and the breeze now, and the same in the Dominican Republic. But it hasn’t affected us yet.

We started to prepare for Irma a few days ago. We bought extra food and drinking water, staff secured the buildings and any lose materials that could fly if it comes. Our staff are well used to hurricanes. Our schools in Port au Prince have opened their doors as evacuation centres to take in anyone who needs somewhere to stay, and our hospitals have stocked up materials. Staff will stay on site and do 24 or 28-hour shifts.

We link up with organisations that have schools in northwest Haiti, the most impoverished area of the country, which is where I was when the area was completely destroyed by Matthew last year. There were houses with just two walls left standing. The area got washed out completely. For four weeks after Matthew, the only way I could get around was on the back of a motorbike, the roads were so badly damaged.

A lot of people in Haiti still live in houses with thatched roofs, made from a mixture of mud and stone. When the winds and rain are very heavy, it just gets washed away. If you are in the mountains, it can take months for the houses to dry out afterwards because there is no central heating, and no fires in the houses because there are no chimneys. Everything is humid and covered in mould afterwards.

Around Port-au-Prince, the houses are built a bit better. Standards have improved since the earthquake. A lot of people from Ireland have helped to fund the rebuild of houses around Haiti, but there are still parts of Haiti that get very little aid.

The communication system has improved a lot in recent years, especially with Digicel, to warn the people to start preparing for a hurricane or earthquake. Haiti is also in an earthquake zone; we had a 4.3 last week. Not everyone has a smartphone here, but a lot of people have seen the photos this morning of what has happened on the other islands. They have family in Florida, and they seem more scared than they are here.

When it hits, you can’t open your windows, you can’t open your doors, you can’t go out. Trees fall down. If you have glass windows, they will start to crack with the force of the wind. All you can do is just stay in bed to be safe.

(In conversation with Ciara Kenny)