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Cubans count costs of Ivan, wonder who will pay

In an operation that was praised by the United Nations for its efficiency,  Cuban evacuated nearly 2 million people from low-lying areas ahead of Ivan's landfall. But the aftermath is bleak. NBC's Mary Murray reports.
Man walking over debris of destroyed house after Hurricane Ivan brushes Cuba
A Cuban man walks over the debris of a destroyed house in Punta de Carta, in the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio, on Tuesday.Henry Romero / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

The day after Ivan skimmed Cuba’s western coast on its way north, Pedro Morales and his son tried to get home. 

They rode their bicycles more than 20 miles before hitting a military roadblock a few miles outside of town. Waiting at a bus shelter, they were joined by dozens of their neighbors also anxious to see what if any of their possessions survived the Category five hurricane, now hitting the U.S. Gulf Coast region.

They also feared looting in their coastal village of Playa Cana. “They won’t let us pass,” complained Morales. “They say it is too dangerous.”

In an operation that was praised by the United Nations for its efficiency, the government evacuated nearly 2 million people from low-lying areas ahead of Ivan's landfall, a program which apparently avoided any Cuban loss of life.

But the aftermath for Morales and thousands of other Cuban remains uncertain, even when they are allowed to return to their homes. While the Cuban Parliament has promised to help people rebuild, economics may dictate something different.

A military official said Playa Cana was swamped by a 25-foot wall of water when Ivan hit Monday night. “Flooding was so bad I had to send the first surveillance team in on that,” he said pointing to an amphibious tank parked on the side of the road.

“That could take at least 48 hours,” he told the anxious crowd of men. He also assured them that police stationed in the flooded town would be enough to discourage thieves.

An aerial view shows damaged houses in the coastal town of Castro in the western province of Pinar del Rio, September 14, 2004. Hurricane Ivan brushed Cuba's western tip on Monday, causing limited damage to houses but the flooding of coastal areas which has prevented evacuees to return to their homes. Ivan is headed into the Gulf of Mexico toward the United States. REUTERS/Claudia DautClaudia Daut / X00076

Morales and his son waited just two hours before hitching a ride back to the city on a government flatbed.

The government has yet to assess the full toll from Ivan, even though the island was fortunate to escape a full frontal hit when it struck Monday.

Yet, Cuba incurred $1 billion in damages from Hurricane Charley last month and tens of thousands dislodged by that weather system are still living with relatives or in government shelters.

The storm also poked holes in the island’s power grid, leaving a handful of Havana provincial communities in the dark for months to come.

Double whammy
The Hernandez family from the coastal fishing village of Coloma was also caught in a waiting game this week after their town was flooded with sea water. It could take them at least a week to return. “But to what,” asks Humberto, a 46-year-old teacher.

Last month they lost their home to Hurricane Charley.

“There’s not much to salvage,” said his wife Liliana. No furniture. No stove. Little clothing.

Veronica, their 7-year-old daughter, packed what was left of her story books and her only remaining stuffed animal when the family evacuated Sunday to a friend’s sturdier inland house.

Along the San Juan Highway on the western coast of Cuba, there was plenty of evidence of Ivan's wrath -- heavy flooding, downed palm trees and mangled power lines, roofless houses and others completely flattened.

Half a dozen men were nailing odd scraps of wood to the roof of Abelia Atiaga’s house. The 67-year-old rice farmer has lived in a wooden shack with dirt floors at the entrance to her property for the last two years after Hurricane Isadora destroyed the family home.

Since then, all she has managed to build is the foundation to a new house. “The big cement factory in Mariel is closed so there’s no building material,” said Atiaga.

Now with more hurricane damage to contend with, she wonders when life will get back to normal.

“At least we are alive. The storm was terrifying. The noise scared me the most,” she said referring to Ivan’s 160-mph winds and gusts that reached nearly 200 mph.

Hefty price tag
Everything is in short supply in Cuba, except manpower. And that’s what the government harnessed to face Ivan.

Civil Defense authorities mounted a massive evacuation plan, dispatching every available truck and bus to move a  record 1.9 million people in 72 hours. So far, authorities believe no one died in the storm.

The United Nations has praised President Fidel Castro’s government, saying its hurricane preparations could serve as a model to other countries—poor and rich alike.

“The Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions, and even in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their population as well as Cuba does,” said Salvano Briceno, head of the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

It may take weeks before the Cuban government knows the full extent of the damage but Castro has warned the island would be facing a hefty price tag.

Bad news for his cash-strapped government but devastating for people like Ricardo Alvarez, a 33 year-old mason who lives with his mother and a nephew in Pinar del Rió.

“This is where the dining room collapsed,” he explained, pointing to a three-foot crater in the cement floor. The kitchen ceiling also caved in.

Water also poured into the house through porous walls, soaking mattresses and other vital possessions. When asked what he would do, he admitted he had no idea as he held back tears.