By DALIA ACOSTA
HAVANA TIMES, Dec 11 (IPS).- The years will pass in Gibara, Holguin and their children’s children will ask how much truth there was in their grandparents’ stories.
The family who watched the water reach their second-floor apartment, the woman who dreamt the day before that she was swimming in her own house, or the story that along the coast, even the coral reefs shook will all seem like legends.
Or maybe not. Perhaps the deafening roar of the winds of Hurricane Ike or the six-meter high storm surge it caused in September will become such common occurrences that governments, local communities and families will have to bear them in mind whenever they decide where or how to build homes.
“When the strength of the sea is capable of destroying in just a few hours what it has taken nature centuries to build up, you have to be scared of it,” says architect Alberto Moya, who worked for years to preserve the cultural heritage of this small city located 775 km east of Havana. “And that is what happened all along the coast in Gibara,” he tells IPS.
The seaside neighborhood of “Caletones looks like a different planet. The sea swept everything away. Not even the beach is left. They say the reef itself was shaking,” says Moya.
The Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment reported that in this area, the winds pushed the sea up to 1,000 meters inland, vegetation was damaged along a 25-km stretch of coastal land, large chunks of coral were torn up and washed onto shore, and dunes were destroyed.
On the nearly pristine small beach of Caletones, used as a holiday and recreational spot by residents from the small port town of Gibara, which is 17 km away, only a few solidly-built cabins constructed by government companies were left standing. Seven of the 11 coastal neighborhoods in the area were simply wiped out as the hurricane hovered for hours over the northern coast of the province of Holguín.
Some 40 tropical storms have hit Holguín since 1841. Although Hurricane Flora left over 1,000 people dead or missing in eastern Cuba in 1963, Ike was “the first intense hurricane to pummel us,” says Jorge Proenza, head of the weather forecast service’s provincial team.
The Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale of 1-5 made landfall in Cuba at Cabo Lucrecia, in the town of Banes, on the night of Sept. 7. But rather than penetrating inland and weakening over land, Ike stayed along the coast, hanging “partly over land and partly over sea,” he explains.
With the energy it drew from the warm water, the hurricane devastated Holguín province, with maximum sustained winds of over 195 km per hour. The eye of the hurricane hovered over the province for four hours, but the storm’s spiral bands continued to impact the area for 30 hours.
“Flora was strong, but I can tell you, having lived through it, that it didn’t cause so much damage,” 58-year-old Gibara resident Pedro Ramírez, who is working with the government in designing more resistant construction materials, comments to IPS. “The sea is getting stronger and stronger, and we will have increasingly intense storms. We have to prepare ourselves.”
“When we saw what the sea did, my mother and I just hugged each other, crying. To come back and find that you have nothing left is not easy; everything was lost,” says Tania Velasquez, 36, who was just a teenager when she had the first of her four children, and who says she now has to “start all over again.”
“Whenever the weather gets rough, we go to my mother’s house. The sea frequently floods this area, we are used to it. It had already happened one year. What we would do is put everything high up, out of reach of the water, go away, and then come back and clean and put everything back in its place. But this time, it was stronger than ever,” she says.
Her cinder block and brick house, which her family built with so much sacrifice, was basically dragged out to sea, as were all of the houses in the El Guirito neighboorhood in Gibara. “My husband came back first, and almost went mad when he saw the wreckage. After the initial shock, he started salvaging things and throwing together a place for us to live.”
The family’s temporary shack was built with pieces of fiber cement tiles left from the original roof, and now holds everything that could be salvaged from the ruins. Next to it, they built a small room with cement blocks, to serve as a makeshift kitchen. “Now all I can do is wait,” says Velázquez.
The important thing is for no one to be left without a roof over their heads, say local authorities who, like those in the rest of this Caribbean island nation, have had to come up with creative solutions to deal with the damages caused in nearly the entire country by the passage of three major hurricanes in just seven weeks.
More than 19,000 homes out of a total of 25,400 in the entire municipality of Gibara were damaged or destroyed, Rosa María Leyva, local secretary of the governing Communist Party and president of the Municipal Defense Council, tells IPS.
Velásquez hopes that someday the government will give her the possibility to live in a housing development within the city of Gibara itself.
But her neighbor, 42-year-old Raúl Pupo, does not want to even consider moving away from the sea. “I lost everything because of my trust in the sea, but just as I lost it, I will rebuild it,” he remarks to IPS.
“I have lived here all my life,” adds Pupo, who is currently being housed with his family in a state institution, and who walks every morning to the spot where their home stood before. “The only thing I want is for them to give me the materials I need to rebuild my own home,” he says.
A PALM WOOD HOUSE
“I want a house made of palm trees,” Odalis Leal told the government in her town when she found out that the wood of more than 7,000 royal palm trees (Roystonea regia) knocked down by Hurricane Ike in Gibara could be used to build housing for families who lost their homes.
Hers was one of the more than 2,000 homes that were completely destroyed in the town itself, and the first to be replaced by a house made of palm tree wood, according to the Holguín newspaper Ahora.
Similar homes could be built in other areas, taking into account the characteristics of each neighborhood, and respecting the city’s architectural standards and styles.
“What I had before was a house made of boards that were completely rotten and that my mother had gradually covered inside with colored paper so it wouldn’t look so bad,” says Leal, who lives with her four children in one of the neighborhoods in Gibara that is on higher ground.
“The sea didn’t reach all the way up here, but the winds destroyed everything,” she tells IPS.
Her new house will have two bedrooms and a small living room, with separate outbuildings for the kitchen and bathroom. Next door lives her father in a house as old as the one she lost, but which is still standing, and her aunt and her sister live down the hill. They are all waiting for assistance to repair and improve their homes, but at least they did not lose the roofs over their heads.
Although hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma caused an estimated 10 billion dollars in damages when they stormed through the island on Aug. 30, Sept. 8-9, and Nov. 9, respectively, only seven people were killed, thanks to the government’s evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from danger zones.
Many people are still living in government institutions that are serving as shelters, where they receive free meals and health care. Another large number are living with relatives. The government has guaranteed reparations of the homes that were damaged and the construction of thousands of temporary homes.
Leal does not know how much her new house will cost. Inquiring about prices was not a priority for her, nor was it for local authorities who are seeking solutions to the urgent need for housing, and in cases like hers, have left the paperwork till later.
The materials for repairing damaged housing are sold to the public at subsidized prices: an asphalt roofing square costs just four Cuban pesos, a bag of cement 4.50 pesos and a cubic meter of gravel or sand nine pesos — less than one U.S. dollar.
According to the director of the Banco Popular de Ahorro savings bank in Gibara, Marisel Rodriguez, loans are granted according to the situation of each family and the wages they earn. The monthly payments amount to around 10 percent of the beneficiary’s income, and the interest is paid by the Ministry of Finance and Prices.
But despite the efforts, there are not enough funds. “Many people will have to wait a year or two, or who knows how long, for a solution because the impact on housing has been huge. The important thing is that no one has been left on their own, abandoned to their fate,” says Leyva, president of the Municipal Defense Council.