It’s hard to believe it has been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina caused so much damage in Miami, New Orleans, and the area around Biloxi. My experience and perceptions about Katrina are a little different than those of most Americans.
I still vividly remember crawling into my tent on the beach at the mouth of Rio Cauto, Cuba’s longest river. Before I went to sleep, I turned on my portable radio to listen to station WIOD in Miami. I remember the announcer quietly and pleasantly announcing that “things look fine throughout the Caribbean tonight. It looks like there is a little tropical depression out there somewhere near the Bahamas. If it gets any stronger, it will become Tropical Storm Katrina. We’ll keep an eye on it for you.” He sounded so reassuring that I didn’t worry about it too much, but it was in the back of my mind as I fell asleep.
Earlier in the month, I joined five other US Americans in an Earthwatch expedition in a remote part of eastern Cuba. Our hosts were graduate biology students from the University of Havana. Our expedition leader was Roberto, a Ph.D. candidate. He was an expert on crocodiles. Getting to our camp site required a flight from Miami to Havana, a 500-mile bus ride east from the capital, traveling a dozen miles in the back of a 4WD truck, then transferring to a trailer pulled by an old Soviet-era tractor with tires six feet tall. But wait! We still had a ways to go. We were dropped off at a boardwalk which traversed across a mangrove swamp. We schlepped our supplies about a quarter mile to a small boat dock, where I unceremoniously partially fell through the rotting deck. No worries–Cubans can fix anything, so they dragged me out of the swamp and patched-up the boards.
We then boarded several small boats tethered together and proceeded to navigate through the delta to our camp at the research facility. I’ll always remember floating along, looking up into the mangrove trees and seeing prehistoric iguana lizards dangling from large branches. I always assumed they only hung out in dry desert areas—they just seemed so out of place there in the swamp. We finally arrived at our camp, and each of us claimed a campsite which would be home for the next two weeks.
We spent our days learning about the wildlife there in the Cuboonies. We dug up iguana eggs, examined them, weighed them, and replaced them under the sand. We also caught adult iguanas–which grew up to five feet in that area (although we didn’t capture any that long). We tagged them and released them back into the wilderness of the delta. During the last week we patrolled the numerous interconnected waterways looking for juvenile crocodiles to capture by net, inspect, tag and release. We’d celebrate our successes in the evening with healthy meals of such items as fresh-caught fish, Cuban beer and rum. (I think I remember celebrating that way even when we weren’t successful.) We always had something to celebrate. I even celebrated the “impending breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations” and the end of the embargo. I was sure it would happen within a year. I don’t think anybody else in our group of Cubans and US Americans felt that way—I was the eternal optimist.
Our little camp was a wonderful wilderness outpost in a whacky world. Back in Havana, many Cubans were seriously preparing for a possible military invasion from the U.S., after its “successful” invasion of Iraq. From my tent on the beach I watched incredible sunrises and sunsets. Dolphins swam up and down the mouth of the river where it met the sea, and pelicans crash-dived into the water in search of food. Large flocks of pink flamingos occasionally flew overhead. As I look back on those days, I am amazed at how we managed to survive in style.
Since I was an RN and brought along an old suitcase full of medical supplies, I became the unofficial camp nurse. We were remarkably accident free during our visit (even with large fishhooks, sharp crocodile teeth, and various other implements of trauma surrounding us). But one day our expedition leader Roberto told me he wasn’t feeling very well. I didn’t know it ahead of time, but he was a cardiac patient on various meds, including the anti-hypertensive Captopril. I can’t remember if he ran out of meds or simply misplaced them. I checked his BP, and it was through the roof! I clearly remember taking a deep breath while trying to concentrate on staying calm, hoping not to show how freaked-out I was. I didn’t know what other meds he was on, if he had taken them, what the interactions were, the effects of whatever degree of dehydration he was experiencing, and how to med-evac him the hell out of there. It wasn’t like we were in downtown Havana, a short ambulance ride to the nearest ER.
Our camp was visited every three days by a fishing boat which brought us ice, other supplies, and a traveling physician. The boat was there 2 days earlier, so it was expected to arrive the next day. I suggested to Roberto that he take the day off, let me monitor his BP every few hours, and radio our base to have the doctor bring more medication with her next visit. Roberto’s pressure somehow dropped into an acceptable range by the time she arrived. He was determined to not leave our camp–after all, he was our fearless leader. By this time I had accepted that I wasn’t going to convince him to change his mind, so he stayed with us after that for the entire 2-week period.
Oops—I guess I got distracted again. When I write about Cuba, a word or sentence can scatter my mind in many directions. I’m going to focus on Katrina. The next day after I heard about her on the radio, she developed into Tropical Storm Katrina, then morphed into Hurricane Katrina. Her eye veered north of us and passed right over Miami, scoring a bulls-eye hit on the building that housed the National Hurricane Center. South Florida suffered a lot of destruction, and about a dozen people were killed. The Cubans in our camp were very concerned, because most of them had relatives in Miami. From there Katrina headed northwest across the Gulf, became a Category 5 hurricane, and was even more destructive, especially in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi. Most of you know the details of what happened there. But I’ll bet very few of you know what happened after that involving Cuba, the U.S., and Katrina. The reports made the front pages of newspapers all over the world, including America’s best allies such as Canada and the UK. In the United States, however, the details were usually relegated to an article at the bottom of page 12, next to the furniture ads. I’ll write more about what happened in my next post.
Jim (left) and Roberto Jim (with hat) and young crocodile
“I need a COLD Bucanero beer—STAT!”