Precarious Housing Before and After Hurricane Irma

By Gisselle Morales Rodriguez  (Progreso Semanal)

Many homes in the towns of Yaguajay municipality completely collapsed with the passing of Hurricane Irma. Photo: Oscar Alfonso Sosa /ACN

HAVANA TIMES — A wall made out of palm tree boards and a table. This is the only thing left standing in Iris Leidy Cedeno’s home; the rest – that is to say, the other palm tree boarded walls and some cardboard partitions – came tumbling down as soon as Hurricane Irma began to sweep along Cuba’s northern coast.

When the hurricane came to a halt in front of Yaguajay’s shores, with its eye approximately 30 kilometers away, everything had already been turned upside down in Iris Leidy’s home.

“I took shelter at the bakery with my son, and from there I could see how the wind ripped out trees from the roots and my neighbors’ roofs, which went flying with their brackets and everything,” she describes.

There are still traces of the last gusts of wind in Iris Leidy’s home more than a month after Irma hit it: boards mixed up on the floor with pieces of cardboard and some zinc sheets still stuck in the wooden beams that were her roof. Such an impenetrable hodgepodge that Iris Leidy and her 14-year-old son don’t know how to begin to rebuild.

Her case is just one out of the 453 homes reported to be damaged in the small town of Aracelio Iglesias and, at the same time, this is just a drop in the sea of 10,070 homes that have been accounted for in the Yaguajay municipality, according to figures published by the local press.

Two similarly worrying realities can be deduced from the magnitude of this figure, which could continue to increase if rains continue to fall which people believe will happen in the northern area of Sancti Spiritus. We didn’t need a hurricane to know that housing in Yaguajay was in a regular to poor state and – this is the worst thing – that in order to recover from these damages, we need more than emergency plans and calls for “temporary facilities”.

“A temporary facility is a building that is made as a solution at that exact moment, whether that’s with one’s own resources or with units that the government hands out for free to families that need them because their homes have collapsed completely; the basic need being to not sleep outdoors.”

Sixto Leiva Davila, the head  of the Aracelio Iglesias’ civil defense defines this concept as if he were reading from a dictionary.

In Aracelio Iglesias, a town that everyone calls “Nela” out of the stubbornness that only towns have in clinging onto their original names, any neighbor can explain and even give you examples of homes that have been erected using the same boards and zinc sheets that the hurricane had scattered and others that, to their owners’ dismay, didn’t even have anywhere left to tie up the goat.

“In these cases,” Sixto tells me, “temporary facility units are entering sales points.”

Every unit includes cement, fiber-cement panels, cardboard, tacks, sand and gravel… so that people can brace a wall here, put up a wall there, roof the essential.

To date, around 20 families have been sorted out with these free units in Nela, a number which isn’t very significant when compared to the over 400 homes damaged, but can offer some hope when comparing it with the 53 houses that completely collapsed.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think that materials would come in so quickly,” said Elia Rosa Delgado, an employee at Yaguajay’s Municipal Housing Office and who is on a committee responsible for handing out resources in Nela, a responsibility she shares with representatives from the Bank, Labor and Social Security, Commerce, Physical Planning and Finances and Prices.

“It isn’t only handing them out,” Sixto clarifies, “you have to check out the damages properly and make sure that they are what people tell you and, depending on this, you make sure people get the resources they should. Not any more than  what’s needed because you can’t waste a single nail because there is a lot of need.”

And people don’t only need building materials, they need labor. Therefore, the municipal government would have told state institutions and companies to get their employees to roll up their sleeves and help out in making these temporary facilities.

Daisy Valenzuela was satisfied with the results of this initiative, who was able to sort out her own thanks to the efforts eight farmers from a cooperative who worked on her home and didn’t even ask her for a coffee.

But, in the end, a temporary facility is just that and nothing more: it isn’t a secure home or a definitive solution; it’s just a remedy, a bandage placed with care, a poultice on an infection. A temporary facility is the bread for today, like all those affected know.

On September 9th 2017, Yaguajay’s housing situation wasn’t in a better or worse state than the housing situations in the rest of the cities and towns hit by the hurricane.

Over 14,600 homes were destroyed and 158,500 were damaged across Cuba, according to information issued by the National Defense Council. These figures put the country in the dilemma of finding a definitive solution: build houses for those affected using a government plan or include homes built by owners own efforts into the program, giving them a 50% discount on materials?

On the one hand, the government plan option would mean exponentially increasing a program which had been reduced to the bare minimum today, essentially due to the huge burden this puts on the State’s coffers. On the other hand, self-building projects would also exponentially raise the demand for building materials through the roof, and Cuban industry isn’t characterized by its efficiency or productivity.

And in the eye of the hurricane, many people’s homes were already on the verge of collapsing before Hurricane Irma. This reality, which is just as disturbing as the hurricane’s 200 km/h winds, should already be a clue.