(Original title: Hurricanes worsen housing deficit in Cuba)
Frances Robles and Miami Herald staff | Miami Herald
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 ourselves.’‘
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 destroyed.
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.
TOO MUCH LOST
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 materials.’‘
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.’‘
DISPLACED IN ‘04
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.