Friday, June 20, 2008

Cuba braces for new hurricane season

June 19, 2009

by Mary Murray, NBC News Havana Bureau Chief

HAVANA – Like many who live along Cuba’s northern coast, Ivis Gonzalez has been dodging hurricanes her entire life. But in the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, she came close to dying. Some 28 tropical storms swept the region, with 15 developing into full-blown hurricanes. That included Hurricane Wilma – a tropical storm that turned into a category five hurricane in less than 24 hours. Wilma never touched Cuban shores, but it did cause a massive storm surge.

As Wilma approached, Cuban Civil Defense evacuated everyone in Gonzalez’s small fishing village of Playa Baracoa. Residents spent 36 anxious hours in a high school, where they were given cots, drinking water and a few hot meals. After the rain passed and with the sun shining, Gonzalez and her neighbors rushed to get home – anxious to see what was left.

Image: Ivis Gonzalez
Roberto León / NBC News
Ivis Gonzalez was lucky to escape the storm surge of a 2005 hurricane.

They found the town under 2 feet of seawater. Gonzalez spent the next few hours wading through her home, trying to salvage linens, clothes and her few appliances. In the midst of this drama, Cuban soldiers and police knocked on doors and insisted that people evacuate for a second time. High tide was coming, which would swamp the town under Wilma’s 20-foot storm surge. González, one of the last to capitulate, almost lost her life. Just moments after locking her front door and taking a seat on a government truck, a huge wave smashed into her small wooden house and broke it apart like a house of matches.

No money to rebuild

Three years later, she is still struggling to put her life back together. After Wilma, she quit her job – too distraught to work. She and her 11-year-old son sleep at her sister’s house. They survive on a monthly stipend her ex-husband sends from Miami. Trying to discourage people like Gonzalez from rebuilding vulnerable housing along the coast, the government gave her a plot of land on higher ground and access to cheap construction material. But the lot stays vacant – she has no money to hire builders. "Sometimes I think I’ll die before my life improves," she sighed.

Other hurricane victims have had better luck. Wilma also decimated Playa del Cajio, sweeping away dozens of flimsy shacks built from wood scraps and thatched roofing. Once the floodwaters receded, the Cuban government trucked in low-cost building supplies and full-time construction crews who helped the community of fishermen rebuild the supermarket, primary school and homes. But such aid is more the exception than the rule.

Nearly half of buildings need repair

The National Housing Institute estimates that 43 percent of all residential buildings across the island needs repair, after decades of neglect and harsh weather conditions. The need is especially keen in 13 of the island’s most populated cities, built in low-lying coastal areas subject to flooding.
Upgrading Cuba’s precarious housing stock is one of the government’s biggest headaches. New housing construction consistently falls below plans. Last year the Ministry of Construction promised 70,000 new homes but came in some 20,000 short. This year, the aim is to give new housing to some 50,000 strapped families. That’s just a drop in the bucket.

Housing experts estimate that the island immediately needs more than 10 times that amount of new housing. Havana architect Miguel Coyula points out that shortages are even more acute in the capital, where 80 percent of all buildings date back to 1959 – and are particularly susceptible to the ravages of coastal weather. Over 190,000 housing units should be overhauled, said Coyula. "Salt and the heavy presence of iron in the air eat away at building structures, flaking the exterior paint and corroding the steel reinforcements embedded in the cement walls," said Coyula. The region’s heavy rain makes it all worse. "The old structures soak up all that water. The roof cannot stand the additional load and collapses. Or, after the rain, the sun starts drying the structure. That expands the water in the walls. They explode and that’s when the buildings cave in," explained Coyula.

'Already a disaster area'

Ramón Machado lives in one of the 8,000 Havana tenements on the verge of collapse. City inspectors condemned his building three years ago after the roof fell in. After living in a temporary shelter for a few weeks, Machado and about 30 of his neighbors moved back. Legally, they are squatters. "This is already a disaster area. Imagine if a hurricane comes here," Machado shrugged. "The whole place would come tumbling down." An unemployed exterminator with no money to fix his leaky roof, Machado strung empty canvas bags along his open ceiling to catch the rain. He also scavenged wooden beams to prop against his roof, hoping to keep plaster from falling during the 2008 hurricane season. If Cuban forecasters are right, Machado has his work cut out.

"We are embedded in an active season," warned Dr. Jose Rubiera, the island’s top weatherman.
But that’s as far as his forecasts will go. After Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast and killed more than 1,300 people, Rubiera decided to keep his general predictions private. "If I tell you it will be a weak season, you may not be prepared. Everyone needs to stay on their guard," he advised. "Don’t get hung up on numbers. Just be cautious. Be prepared."

Plenty of practice

Cubans are generally hurricane savvy. At the start of every season, emergency workers and members of the Civil Defense take a weekend to practice evacuations and first aid. Days before any hurricane nears Cuban waters, national TV and radio bombard viewers with non-stop weather reports and painstakingly review emergency plans. Karen Bernard, a United Nations official who helps Caribbean nations tackle climate disasters, would like to see other countries think and act more like Cuba. "The country does a remarkable job at safeguarding human life," said Bernard.

Image: Karen Bernard
Roberto León / NBC News
U.N. official Karen Bernard says strong planning efforts have helped Cuba avoid hurricane deaths.

In the last two decades, 17 major storms have battered the island – but caused fewer than 40 deaths. That may be the world’s best track record, according to a 2006 study by the UN Development Program. The risk of dying in a hurricane hitting the United States, said the report, was 15 times higher than in socialist Cuba. Bernard believes Cuba’s success lies with its centralized planning and preparation along with its focus on removing people from the path of danger. Often, that begins before the rains start and the sun is still shining.

Learning important lessons

It wasn’t always easy convincing people to leave behind all their worldly possessions. But Cuban authorities have learned two lessons that help people evacuate peacefully. No one needs to worry about looting while they are away from home. Police are ordered to guard precious personal property like refrigerators, fans and television sets moved to higher ground. In addition, people can bring their family pets along to government shelters. "Cuba uses evacuation as a preventative measure. They don’t want to see anyone die because they failed to evacuate," Bernard said.

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