When Hurricane Irma approached Havana, threatening a storm surge, entrepreneur Jose Angel Díaz Lara knew just what to do to protect his restaurant La Cocinita near the Malecón seawall in a flood-prone area: Move the furniture to the mezzanine, take off the front glass doors to keep them from breaking, and schedule crews to work at the premises before, during, and after the storm.
Díaz Lara already had considered potential floods when he and his partners renovated a former government-run locale to open their private restaurant in April. The group invested in water-resistant paint and waterproof finishes on brick walls and other surfaces, and they built the mezzanine to host events–and hold the downstairs furniture if needed. Díaz Lara had learned best practices for storm preparedness during decades of running government restaurants, including many along the coast.
Though Irma’s waters reached close to the top of the doors in La Cocinita, the restaurant re-opened only five days after the Sept. 9 storm, the first on its block to be back in business. Crews retouched the paint in a few spots, but damages were minimal. The eatery now looks brand new, as if it were never flooded.
“Now, we have to get the word out that we’re recovered,” said polo shirt-clad Díaz Lara, 51, as both tourists and locals enjoyed lunch on the restaurant’s outdoor terrace on a late September afternoon.
Across Cuba, entrepreneurs are coping with the impact of Irma, and like Díaz Lara, many say damages to their businesses are smaller than TV footage of flooded streets off Havana’s Malecón might suggest. Electricity was restored in most parts of the capital within several days, and by late September, was back 99 percent nationwide, officials said.
A bigger worry for many cuentapropistas, however, is tourists staying away over concerns about hurricane damage. Havana taxi driver Carlos Alberto Placeres said his business dropped by about half after Irma, and his family had cancellations for the room they rent––though neither his car nor home suffered damages. His advice to travelers: “Come and see for yourself. The cyclone did not destroy Havana,” said the 24-year-old, who proudly sported a tattoo on his neck that read in English “I Love” on top of the Cuban flag.
To be sure, Irma dealt a direct blow to many businesses. Down the street from La Cocinita near Vedado’s Melia Cohiba hotel, gray-haired Miriam Cruz figured she might need until November to reopen her sports bar La Chucherría. Though the family had removed some TVs, equipment and furniture before the storm, Irma’s floods seeped into walls and damaged electric and water systems.
“It’s terrible, because this is a family business, and we all live from it,” said the 80-year-old Cruz, whose family was looking into a government loan to help fund repairs that could run into thousands of dollars.
Around the corner, nurse Alina Vergara Odelín reckoned her boyfriend would probably lose one month’s rent and pay out another month’s worth to fix the apartment he rents to visitors. Flood waters damaged the drawers in a built-in wooden closet, though the couple had moved most of the furniture to a ledge off the floor to save it from flooding. “This is temporary,” said Vergara, 48, who wore a camisole, leggings and sandals––attire typical of many
Cuban women. “A month from now, this place will be restored.”
La Cocinita co-owner Díaz Lara said it’s lucky that September tends to be slow for tourism, giving Cuba time for restoration before the busy winter season. Tourism officials expect most hotels in the beach hub of Varadero to be fully operational by then, though some resorts on the hard-hit barrier islands of Cuba’s north coast will take longer to recover. Díaz Lara is hopeful that fellow entrepreneurs will learn from Irma to invest in hurricane preparedness as best they can, long before another storm nears Cuba. “There’s nothing like experience,” said the restaurant veteran, “to teach you what you need to do.”