Ray Sanchez | Havana Bureau | Sun Sentinel
Cuban authorities are reporting 64 partial or total building collapses in the capital, and emergency workers are desperately trying to reach a man trapped in the rubble of a building near the city’s famous Malecon.
The impact of Hurricane Ike’s tropical storm force winds and torrential rains on the fragile, decayed buildings of Old Havana had been a major concern. Tuesday, 16 gave way, including four aged buildings in a single block crumbled into rubble.
This morning, the number shot up sharply.
At this hour, a crowd has gathered near the intersection of two of Havana’s most famous thoroughfares Prado and the Malecon where the upper three floors of a four-story building collapsed and a man remains trapped inside.
Officials said the building had been evacuated, but the man apparently returned without permission some time before the building came down.
And it may not be over: More collapses are probable in the coming days as weakened buildings dry out.
The collapse came as Hurricane Ike delivered its parting shot on Cuba, on its way into the Gulf of Mexico.
At 11 a.m., the National Hurricane Center put Ike’s center about 225 miles from Key West, and gaining strength. Maximum sustained winds had grown to 85 mph as the storm heading west-northwest at about 8 mph.
Behind it, Ike left a destructive trail stretching hundreds of miles across Cuba, from the eastern provinces to Pinar del Rio in the west.
Electrical power is out across much of the island, communications spotty. Hundreds if not thousands of homes are damaged or destroyed, rain-swollen rivers have overflowed their banks, mudslides and felled trees block roads. Four people are dead.
As it left Cuba, Ike delivered a punishing blow to towns such as Los Palacios, which already suffered a direct hit from a Category-4 Hurricane Gustav on Aug. 30.
In a poor neighborhood along the train tracks, the combined fury of Ike and Gustav left nearly two-thirds of the wooden homes without roofs or completely leveled.
“The first one left me something, but this one left me nothing,” said Olga Atiaga, a 53-year-old housewife. Gustav obliterated her roof and some walls. Then Ike blew away a mattress and smashed the kitchen sink.
“I don’t even have anything to sleep on,” she said.
Odalis Cruz, a 45-year-old housing inspector, said she evacuated to a shelter in the town’s rice mill when it became clear Ike was following Gustav’s path through Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province where Cuba produces tobacco used in its famous cigars.
She surveyed the damage to her home Tuesday.
“We repaired the roof two days ago and this one took the new one,” she said. “I’m ready to move to Canada! We have spent eight days drying out things, cleaning everything, sleeping on the floor, and now we are hit again.”
Gustav damaged at least 100,000 homes but didn’t kill anyone because of massive evacuations. Wednesday morning, state media reported that 2.6 million nearly a quarter of the island’s population were evacuated or sought shelter with friends or relatives. Close to one million were taken to government shelters.
Maylin Figueredo, 24, rode out Ike’s passing with neighbors across the street from the tiny Old Havana apartment she shared with her 4-year-old son. The apartment, which was deemed unsafe by local authorities, was literally a concrete and wood box built beneath a cracked and unsteady staircase reinforced with wooden beams. Cracks crisscrossed her walls like roads on a map. Neighbors on the upper floors were evacuated earlier.
“We’re all scared,” Figueredo said. “This place could come down any moment.”
As Ike headed off toward the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday afternoon, recovery efforts had already begun in the hard-hit eastern and central provinces where the storm first struck Sunday night. Ike first made landfall in the coastal city of Baracoa, destroying 300 homes and damaging hundreds more.
Tuesday, government trucks delivered tons of cement, roofing and other building materials to the city, which was battered by waves five stories high. In Camaguey, Ike severely damaged the electrical and telephone systems. Parts of the province’s southern coast remained underwater from surging seas and overflowing rivers.
In Granma, the state press reported that some 170,000 cans of coffee were at risk of being ruined and 150,000 banana plants lay flattened. Some remote communities were unreachable because of flooding.
In western Pinar del Rio, reports of damage were still sketchy. Dangerous storm surges were reported along the southwestern coast, which is lined with small fishing villages. Reservoir levels were dangerously close to overflowing and flooding nearby communities and roads, state media said.
Gustav struck as a powerful Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of 150 mph. It tossed trees and power poles like matchsticks, smashed cars and ripped the roofs and walls from homes and buildings. Authorities said as many as 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Total damage was estimated in the billions of dollars, although no official figures have been released.
On Tuesday, despite Cuba’s earlier rejection, Washington reiterated its offer to send humanitarian aid if Cuba allowed a U.S. assessment team to examine the damage.
“We’re hopeful that the government of Cuba will put the welfare of their people above politics,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.