Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hurricanes worsen housing shortage in Cuba

Posted on Friday, 10.10.08

Hurricanes worsen housing shortage in Cuba
A severe housing shortage in Cuba was worsened by two hurricanes that
left another 440,000 homes on the island in dire condition.

FLORIDA, Cuba -- The wooden one-room shack where Humberto Díaz lived in
central Cuba is technically still standing, but the planks that made up
its roof snapped into multiple pieces when Hurricane Ike sent a palm
tree crashing through.

He spent a recent afternoon scrounging materials off the floor to use in
rebuilding, and hopes to buy shingles at about $4 apiece. Díaz doubts
the Cuban government help will come in time: Too many people are waiting.

''The last time a storm damaged my house, it took the state four months
to get me materials,'' he said, covered in wood chips as he chopped the
remains of the palm that claimed his house. ``We'll have to rebuild it

Díaz counts himself among the more than two million people on this
island whose roofs were smashed or their entire homes toppled with the
passage of two devastating hurricanes. By the Cuban government's count,
some 440,000 homes were damaged during hurricanes Gustav in August and
Ike eight days later, in September. An estimated 63,000 of them were

Cuba, already reeling from a serious housing shortage, has nearly
doubled its deficit in homes, while the tab to replace them mounts in
the billions. With scarce resources and coast-to-coast wreckage, the
country is faced with the daunting task of housing storm victims while
simultaneously trying to rebuild its agricultural industry and thousands
of government buildings.

Food shortages have begun to plague the capital, and the government will
probably be forced to spend money first on groceries. The government
estimates that it needs $5 billion to rebuild.

''We take a few steps forward, and a few steps back,'' said Kike, one of
Díaz's neighbors.


Experts say the task is so overwhelming that Cuba is unlikely ever to
accomplish it. Too many structures were lost in a country that already
had thousands of people living in temporary and substandard shelter.
People simply have to make do.

Díaz, whose house in Camagüey province was bigger before he lost the
back half to a different storm, is staying with friends.

The Tejada family, who lived outside Floro Pérez in the northeastern
province of Holguín, have been sleeping at a school each night. When
morning comes, they roll up their belongings so children can attend
class while the storm refugees go home and rebuild.

Rosa Arrencibia, 47, said 42 people crammed into her sister's three-room
house in Camagüey.

José Armando Valdez is 81 and hitches a ride every day between his house
in Santa Lucía in Camagüey to his son's in Guardalavaca in Holguín to sleep.

''At least I have half of my roof,'' Valdez said. ``I can stay under the
half that's there for now. The people who lost their whole roofs should
be helped first.''

Even before the storm, the Cuban government press said the national
housing deficit was 600,000 units, up from 530,000 five years ago. The
government boasted of building 110,000 houses last year, then
acknowledged that they had not even come close.

''Nothing justifies fraud or trickery like was produced last year when a
number of houses were reported as finished, and they weren't,'' Vice
President Carlos Lage said last year.

The National Housing Institute adjusted its goal to 50,000 new homes a
year. At that rate, it would take at least 20 years to build all the
homes Cuba needs.

According to media reports, the government had built just 22,558 by June
this year.

''Hurricanes have been hitting Cuba forever, and never, never, never was
it like this time,'' said Florida International University architecture
professor Nicolas Quintana, a former Havana city planner. ``What will it
take to rebuild? Rebuild how? Are you talking tin roofs and wood walls?
If you really want to rebuild, you need a good $50 billion.''

During recent trips to the island, Miami Herald correspondents saw
trucks of construction materials criss-crossing battered highways. But
residents whose homes had crumbled said help was likely to take months
to reach them.

''We are talking about mind-boggling numbers,'' Quintana said. ``That's
a real situation over there.''

He said the blow was made more fierce by the fact that many houses had
already deteriorated.

Experts agree that the resources to make repairs just aren't there,
particularly since many of Cuba's revenue-generators such as tobacco
also took a hit.

''My suspicion is that it's not going to get fixed,'' said Tómas
López-Gottardi, of the University of Miami's School of Architecture.
``Most of that destruction was just waiting to happen. The hurricane
just made it quicker. Everybody agrees: They just don't have the

The U.S. State Department offered Cuba $6 million in building supplies
to help tens of thousands of families, but the Cuban government declined
the offer, saying it needs the embargo lifted temporarily so the
government can buy the supplies it needs. Such a moratorium would
require an act of Congress and is unlikely, experts said.

''From an economic point of view, I do not see Cuba being able to
recover as I define recovery,'' said José Azel, Director of the Cuba
Business Roundtable at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and
Cuban-American Studies. ``I do not see Cuba being able to muster the
financial resources.''


The Associated Press recently reported hundreds of families are living
in squalor in East Havana, where the government placed them in temporary
shelter after Hurricane Charlie in 2004. Like the victims of Hurricane
Katrina in New Orleans, they are still there awaiting sturdier structures.

''They told me it would be six months, but that was in 2004,'' said
María Escalona, 48, a kindergarten supervisor who 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 East Havana. ``I want out of
here already.''

The Miami Herald correspondents who contributed to this report from
central and eastern Cuba are not identified here because they lacked the
visa required by Cuba to report from the island. The article was written
by Frances Robles in Miami.

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