Friday, September 26, 2008

Storms worsen Cuba's housing woes

Storms worsen Cuba's housing woes

HAVANA DEL ESTE, Cuba -- When Hurricane Charlie tore through her
apartment, Marcia Escalona considered herself lucky to land temporary
housing on the Cuban capital's remote outskirts while authorities
pledged to help her rebuild.

But four years later, it no longer feels temporary.

"They told me it would be six months, but that was in 2004, and I want
out of here already," said the 48-year-old kindergarten supervisor. She
lives with her husband and 22-year-old son in two rooms with concrete
walls and a leaky roof in Bahía, a community of temporary homes in
Havana del Este, or East Havana.

Now hundreds of thousands of Cubans blown from their homes by Hurricanes
Gustav and Ike have joined Escalona in line for scarce housing. And
damage to infrastructure, crops and farm equipment means the government
may have to use its resources for food before building materials.

Gustav and Ike roared through the island eight days apart in late August
and early September, killing seven Cubans and damaging nearly half a
million homes. Meanwhile some Cubans forced into temporary, in-transit
shelter by previous storms have waited years -- even decades -- for new
places to live.

Hurricane victims in other poor countries, such as Haiti, cannot dream
of even temporary government-provided shelter. And in the United States,
three years after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of low-income families
continue to live in temporary housing because the storm wiped out
affordable rental units.

Cuban Housing Institute officials are absorbed in rebuilding and won't
be available for some time to talk about the in-transit program, a
government spokeswoman said. No official figures were available on how
many Cubans were already in temporary housing before Gustav and Ike struck.

But the storms exacerbated a severe housing crisis in the country of 11
million, where apartments are so hard to find that couples often share
homes even after divorces.

About 450,000 homes were damaged, more than 63,000 of them beyond
repair. At least 200,000 Cubans were left newly homeless and government
officials say hundreds of thousands more may have to find temporary housing.

Cuba's communist government controls nearly all housing. Citizens depend
on the state for all new construction or major repairs.

In Bahía, life in-transit features barracks-style buildings, each with
15 apartments, where residents hang sheets to separate kitchens from
living rooms and sleeping quarters. There's a medical clinic and almost
everyone has a television set and refrigerator, as well as some
furniture salvaged from their former homes.

There are sinks and toilets with no seats, but the pipes often run dry.
The dwellings were designed to be lived in for just a few weeks, and
ventilation is poor, so rooms are filled all day, every day with moist,
oppressive heat.

"My nerves are shot, my blood pressure is up," Escalona said. "You can't
breathe. The heat suffocates you."

Heading outside is little relief. An overflowing septic system sends
sewage running through the stumpy grass between each row of apartments,
creating an overwhelming stench and swarms of mosquitoes.

Cubans in temporary housing are placed on waiting lists for new homes in
their old neighborhoods.

Up a nearby hill, a shabbier collection of 210 temporary homes overflows
with families whose dilapidated apartment buildings collapsed in
Havana's historic district.

Officially, those left homeless by severe weather get priority for new
places -- a fact not lost on those displaced by the routine decay of
buildings in Old Havana.

"I think they have more hope than we do," said Damarias Gualidan, who
has spent the past decade in temporary housing. "Because nothing fell
down on us during a hurricane, they aren't going to give us anything."

Xudaisy Orozco, a 28-year-old hospital employee, was even more pessimistic.

"It's like the end of the world here," she said. "But there's nowhere
else for us."

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