Roberto Leon  /  NBC News
Magdelena Guzman is still scrambling to prepare for this year's hurricane season after she lost the roof of her apartment in Hurricane Dennis and the wall crumbled after Hurricane Wilma.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 6/1/2006 11:15:06 AM ET 2006-06-01T15:15:06

HAVANA — First, Hurricane Dennis blew the roof off Magdelena Guzman’s top-floor Havana apartment.

Then Hurricane Wilma crumbled the outside wall.

Both times, she worried more about looters than the storms and ignored Civil Defense orders to evacuate.

Along with her sister and teenage daughter, she took refuge on a darkened stairwell. They survived without a scratch but storm waters destroyed most of their furniture, mattresses, television set and kitchen appliances.

Recovery hasn’t been easy, says Guzman, but with help from her job and friends “life is getting back on track.” Her aging housing, though, is another story. 

With the new hurricane season here, Guzman is scrambling to get her house in order — lacking not just money, but construction supplies. “It’s all been at great personal sacrifice because we live from paycheck to paycheck,” said Guzman, a 50-year-old bookkeeper. “I’m just praying we won’t be hit this year.”

Unlikely, says Cuba’s chief hurricane tracker Dr. Jose Rubiera who, like his regional colleagues, expects another rough season due to warmer-than-usual water temperatures in the Atlantic-Caribbean basin.

“We’re expecting 15 tropical storms and at least nine will become hurricanes, about a third more than average,” said Rubiera, head of the National Forecasting Center.

His calculations differ slightly from U.S. predictions but he advises “not to get hung up on numbers. Just be prepared to face another active season.”

'Hurricane savvy' culture
Thinking ahead to the 2006 season, Rubiera’s Institute bought some new technology.

This season eight automated radars will be sending real-time digital imagery back to the Havana weather headquarters and to their

Rubiera thinks that upgrade should also help American meteorologists better track hurricane paths since a lot of storms that pass over Cuba eventually make landfall in the United States.

Roberto Leon  /  NBC News
Dr. Jose Rubiera, Director of Cuba’s National Forecasting Center, in front of the new tracking radars.

Over the last 20 years, the island has weathered 14 fierce storms but with surprisingly low fatalities — fewer than 40 in all. Rubiera credits two phenomena with the minimal loss of life: a “hurricane savvy” culture and effective evacuation.

A solid 72 hours before a major storm, Civil Defense starts issuing bulletins, advisories and orders. As schools and offices close, evacuation centers start stockpiling supplies. Depending on the storm’s size, anticipated sea surge and landfall, Civil Defense may begin actual evacuations as much as three days in advance.

Certainly 48 hours before landfall, when the alert stage begins, people are packing up and being moved to safer ground. Since few Cubans own cars, the government provides transportation. 

Almost nothing is left to chance and never to the last moment, says Rubiera. “It’s a system we’ve refined and that works well.”

People know the drill
Changes in policy over the years have made evacuation more tolerable. During last year’s evacuations, residents of the hard-hit province of western Pinar del Rio brought household pets to government shelters while Civil Defense workers evacuated their livestock to higher ground.

In some towns prone to severe flooding, the government hired private truckers to cart furniture and appliances to public warehouses for safe-keeping.

The system also works because people know the drill.

And, in the event they forget, the military runs nation-wide exercises every spring that includes first aid training and mock evacuations for Cuban Red Cross workers, hospital staff and other emergency personnel.

After Civil Defense moved some two million people out of the anticipated path of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the U.N. office that deals with disaster reduction praised the island as a model for hurricane-evacuation planning.

Effective evacuation or heavy hand?
Few people question the order to evacuate. Government critics say that’s because people are afraid to buck the authoritarian system.

“When the soldiers knock, people have no choice but to obey,” said Hector Nuñez, a Havana taxi driver whose basement apartment was robbed when he evacuated three seasons ago. “They’ll never make me leave my home again.”

But many islanders are like Ivis Gonzalez — fearing Mother Nature more than the authorities.

The day after Hurricane Wilma, she waded back home through storm surge only to watch her wooden house collapse under a violent post-storm wave. 

“I could have been killed,” Gonzalez admits. Instead, she was rescued for a second time by Cuban soldiers sent to clear out the fishing village of Playa Baracoa. Now at the top of a government waiting list for new housing, Gonzalez is asking to be relocated “someplace far from the sea.”

The government plans to build and sell at reduced prices over 100,000 apartments this year, a good number of them earmarked for hurricane victims. Crews are rushing to finish as many as possible before the season’s first storm.

Roberto Leon  /  NBC News
Ivis Gonzalez won't question warnings ahead of the next hurricane; she lost her home in Hurricane Wilma.

According to Cuban government figures, last season’s hurricanes caused over $2 billion in damage — a hefty sum, but not as bad as it could be if Havana was ever hit.

Havana hardly safe
In fact, some believe the island, sitting smack in the middle of the hurricane corridor, has been enormously fortunate.

So far, the city of Havana, an ancient and overcrowded place which two million people call home, has dodged the bullet.

Every hurricane season Havana residents worry their luck will run out.

Mario Coyula, Havana’s best known architect, fears that a major hurricane — anything greater than a Category 3 — would spell catastrophe for the Cuban capital.

Few buildings would escape structural damage, says Coyula. “The elements, bad construction techniques and years of neglect have all taken a toll.”

The corrosive sea air, in particular, spells trouble for the city — especially in homes sitting along its 18 miles of coastline. Coyula has found salt oxidization running an inch deep in the outer walls of the homes lining the Bay of Havana.

Roofing is another wide-spread problem. Iron beams supporting many of the city’s roofs have also rusted from the inside out, corroding the cement.

For decades the Cuban government ignored Havana’s housing needs while gearing construction to rural villages, says Coyula. “The city’s housing stock is in grave shape,” especially the 80 percent of all inner-city units dating back almost a century.

Those neighborhoods are also the most crowded and with the highest proportion of tenements. In a 2003 U.N.-commissioned study, Coyula found some 34,000 inhabitants per square mile in the colonial section of town. At the same time that neighborhood averages about two partial building collapses every three days.

Another study reports that every year an additional 1,400 buildings on the verge of collapse are abandoned.

The government claims some 30 percent of Havana’s housing is in poor shape, not expected to survive the assault of a major storm. By Coyula’s estimates, over half a million people would be left homeless.

Even a Category Three storm would be catastrophic for the city, predicts Coyula. “Thousands of tenement homes would crumble under the rainfall… all the makeshift construction would blow away.”

Havana high rises are another concern. Many of the city’s taller buildings were constructed after 1944, the last time a major hurricane swept through Havana. “They have never been tested”, warned Coyula. He believes they could be susceptible to structural damage.

Real fears
The city of Havana, dating back 500 years, has an aging infrastructure that would cost billions to modernize. Particularly vulnerable is the water supply, notes Coyula, “which could be contaminated by a major storm.”

Under this doomsday scenario, it would take years before the city would begin to recover. Knowing this, the average Cuban worries not just about surviving a storm, but being left homeless for decades to come.

Mary Murray is an NBC News producer based in Havana.


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