HAVANA TIMES, August 13 (IPS) – Debris of houses, roofless buildings and fallen trees are still routine sights along the 740-km drive from the Cuban capital to Holguín, one of the regions most heavily affected by Hurricane Ike in early September, 2008.
Ike radically modified the landscape along the main avenue through the town of Florida, halfway from Havana to Holguín. The natural canopy formed over the road by enormous trees, one of the main attractions along the highway running through central Cuba, is gone without leaving a trace of the soothing shade it provided.
Aerial shots taken after Ike tore through nearly the entire eastern province of Holguín – the third-most populous in the country, accounting for over nine percent of the population of 11.2 million – show the lasting damages it caused.
“I had never been so scared,” said Liset Fernandez, an employee at a state enterprise in the city of Gibara. “We didn’t get any sleep at all that night, and when we went outside the next day we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Gibara had become a different city. Entire neighborhoods had turned into rubble and the seawall had almost disappeared.”
“You wish that all of the problems were solved, but that’s impossible,” said Fernandez, 43, who lost part of her roof during the storm. “But in this city, the work has continued every single day.”
Fixing or replacing damaged homes has been a top priority of the government since Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma slammed the island between Aug. 30 and Nov. 9, 2008, causing more than 10 billion dollars in losses, damaging over half a million homes and leaving homeless or otherwise affecting more than two million people.
However, only seven people died, thanks to the country’s well-oiled evacuation system.
In nine months, the country has solved some 270,000 of the housing and other building problems caused by the storm, but there are still 330,000 pending, the head of the National Housing institute, Víctor Ramirez, reported to parliament on July 30.
In the repair process, the focus is on homes with solid, “hurricane-proof” roofs.
Ramirez said the process of rebuilding and replacing homes damaged or destroyed by the three hurricanes is affected by the fact that three-fourths of the damages to housing, businesses or other buildings were heavily concentrated in 49 municipalities in five specific areas.
Concentration of damage
Nearly 125,000 of the 530,332 housing units damaged or destroyed nationwide are located in Holguín province, which, although it adopted the prevention measures outlined by the civil defense department, was not used to such strong storms.
But several months after the start of the so-called “recovery phase,” Miguel Díaz-Canel – a former provincial secretary of the governing Communist Party, who is now Cuba’s minister of higher education – told IPS that Holguín “has developed the capacity to overcome adversity.
“The province is now prepared to withstand future hurricanes,” he said. “Obviously, each new catastrophe brings complex situations and aggravates existing ones, but what cannot be allowed to diminish is the capacity to confront adversity.”
Official sources reported that as of late July, 57 percent of the damaged or destroyed housing in Holguín province had been restored or rebuilt.
Thanks to resources assigned by the state, local production of building materials, and the use of 85 percent of the more than 133,000 Cuban royal palm (Roystonea regia) trees toppled by Ike, 4,078 damaged homes and 2,176 collapsed homes have been repaired and rebuilt.
Nevertheless, 10,141 families are still living in temporary shelters built with materials from their original homes which were knocked down by the storm. Most of these makeshift shelters consist of one living/bedroom area, a kitchen and a bathroom, but they at least provide the families with privacy.
In addition, 152 families in Holguín continue to live in buildings designated by the civil defense department for use as temporary evacuation centers during emergencies, even though they are not designed to house families for long periods of time.
“Of the original total of 90,221 people who were housed in these shelters, we still have 468 living in 23 evacuation centers in 10 municipalities in the province,” Vivian Rodriguez, president of the Provincial Assembly (the local government) in Holguín, responded to a question from IPS during a meeting with the press in that city.
“Many of these people are building their homes, a process that requires significant resources. The strategy involves 22 new settlements, and around 5,000 housing units are in the pipeline. The priority is to replace homes that were totally demolished, and to provide people with decent housing,” said Rodriguez.
Relocating families away from the sea
A total of 46 of what are referred to as “petro-casas” or “petro-homes”, donated by the Venezuelan government, now house families who lost their homes in Gibara. In their new neighborhood, named “Pueblo Nuevo” (New Town), the families are now far removed from the dangerous coastline where many of them lived before Ike came through.
Official sources in Venezuela say the houses, based on polyvinyl chloride (PVC) components, are safe for human health. Families moved into a similar neighborhood, made up of 100 petro-casas, earlier this year in the central Cuban city of Cienfuegos.
Caletones, a small fishing and resort village 20 km from Gibara, will also be relocated a safe distance from the sea. In that area, the storm surge flooded one kilometer inland when Ike hit, leaving only a few solidly-built cabins constructed by government companies standing.
“It’s true that not all of the needs of families in Gibara have been satisfied, but a large number of people have returned to their homes and are living in better conditions than before the storm,” Rosa Maria Leyva, Communist Party secretary in Gibara, 775 km from Havana, told IPS.
To that end, the municipal government was assigned special equipment and the resources necessary to form two construction brigades whose members will receive training and higher than average wages over a period of at least two years.
Leyva said the policy followed by the government is focused on improving pre-hurricane living conditions, fomenting local production of construction materials, not rebuilding in areas near the coast, and relocating as many families as possible away from the shore.
But pointing out that seven seaside neighborhoods in Gibara were totally wiped out by Ike, Leyva said that with thousands of families who have not yet received the resources and materials needed to rebuild their homes, it is impossible to relocate all vulnerable coastal settlements at this point.
“We cannot destroy the homes that were left standing. What has been decided, though, is that no new homes will be built in those areas. We have helped families who lost their roofs, but the focus is on trying to remove as many families as possible from the coastal areas, for their protection.”