I got out of Cuba before Irma hit. Here’s what I saw.
My friends and I decided to heed warnings and (reluctantly) head home from Cuba early. It wasn’t an easy choice given so much misinformation and skepticism about the true path Hurricane Irma will take. But headlines like “Hurricane Irma: Like a ‘Lawnmower From the Sky’” are hard to shake off.
Here’s what I noticed before flying out of José Martí on Friday.
Cubans Were Undeterred in the Face of the Hurricane
In the face of 155 mile an hour winds, Cuban’s remained undeterred. The past few days we talked with cab drivers, bar flies, university students — and across the board they believed Cubans were prepared for Irma. A fellow traveler likened Cubans’ zeal for discussing hurricane preparedness to their decades long passion for baseball. They believed in their government’s ability to protect them.
In the words of Juan, our driver from Havana to Vinales:
“El huracán no tiene nada que ver con los cubanos.” (The Hurricane’s got nothing on Cuba.)
Major Airlines Were (Surprisingly) Helpful Re-booking Flights
On the heels of numerous viral videos of airlines officials harassing travelers and kicking passengers off flights, it wasn’t surprising seeing such concerted effort being made to leave positive impressions on customers. We re-booked flights with three major airlines: United, Delta, and JetBlue. Assuming changing flight plans would be chaotic, we allocated an entire afternoon in a WiFi enabled hotel in Havana to calling customer service. But every airlines we interacted with was not only calm and composed, but actually successful in getting us to our respective destinations (Chicago, Atlanta, and New York).
José Martí International, on the other hand, was tremendously hectic. Lines of tourists from around the world trying to talk to airport officials stretched passed the sliding door entrance. And since WiFi at the airport is only accessible at gates, travelers relied on the sparse, overwhelmed airport staff for assistance.
In a 50/50 Split Some Tourists Left, Some Stayed
José Martí was not completely flooded by tourists because many, like the Cuban people, believed in the government’s hurricane preparedness. A British couple just kicking off their travels in Vinales on Thursday noted Cuba has dealt with bad weather before, citing Hurricane Mathew in 2016 and Hurricane Ike in 2008. Deciding to hunker down and not let Irma disrupt vacations was surprisingly common among traveler cohorts.
The principal takeaway from my experience leaving Cuba before the hurricane hit was the overwhelming positivity from locals and tourists alike. There was little anxiety. And ultimately, leaving early may have been a bit too hasty.