First heavy rains of the year reveal Cuba’s weak spots

With the hurricane season just beginning

People walk down a street during heavy rain, in the municipality of Cerro, Havana, in early June 2022. Studies in Cuba recognize that good risk management and risk reduction at the local level can reduce the adverse consequences of natural disasters. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/ IPS

In addition to damaged crops and cuts in telecommunications and electricity, the rains left four Cubans dead and more than a thousand houses partially or totally destroyed.

By Luis Brizuela (IPS Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES — Damp-stained walls, broken furniture and electrical appliances still sitting on top shelves confirm the damage caused by heavy rains in early June to the home of Guillermina Alberja in the Cuban capital.

“The important thing is that action was taken immediately, lives were not lost as it swelled very quickly. This is the worst flood I have seen in the 20 years I have lived in El Fanguito,” Alberja said before asking a neighbor to help expose one of his mattresses to the sun.

El Fanguito was one of the hardest hit communities in Havana by torrential rains between June 2 and June 6, flooding parts of the western and central provinces of this Caribbean island.

“The concern of municipal and provincial authorities must be acknowledged, as they came to verify evacuation procedures, giving priority attention to affected families, selling food and then organizing recovery efforts,” explained to IPS the coordinator of a neighborhood organization.

With homes located along the Almendares River and near the estuary, some 600 of El Fanguito’s more than 1,200 residents have been damaged by floodwater, mud and litter. Two accommodation centers for these families have been created.

“When the river rises, my garden gets flooded, but this time he entered the house – made of wood and with a rickety roof – and soaked all the clothes, beds and appliances,” he told IPS. , another neighbor, Aleida Perez. failing voice due to his asthma “because of the enormous humidity inside the house”.

Hazards, weaknesses and risk studies support the relocation of at least 44 houses within 20m of the river, which include the houses of Alberjas, Perez and their families, although the relocation of another 100 households affected by the flood should be reviewed.

With a housing inventory of 598 houses, 72% of which are in normal or poor condition, El Fanguito is one of 67 neighborhoods in Havana that the rains have revealed to be particularly vulnerable.

After the July 2021 protests, these settlements and others across the country received an injection of state resources to meet basic needs that had not been met in terms of building and renovating homes, roads and drinking water supply, as well as sewage system, and other things. But they were far from what is needed.

A man and a child watch the flood from the entrance of their house, in the municipality of Diez de Octubre, in Havana, on June 3, 2022. With the heavy rains in a short time, the water has formed puddles in neighborhoods of the Cuban capital. the poor condition of part of the sewer network and the lack of systematic cleaning of the pipes.

Weak points

Preliminary reports indicate that 55% of the average monthly rainfall fell in just a few days, although the average monthly cumulative rainfall exceeded 100% of the average for June, the second month of the rainy season (May-October) in the region. province of Matanzas and in particular the Isle of Youth – the second largest island of this archipelago.

This meteorological phenomenon activated Cuba’s civil protection system, organized both at the national and local level, to deal with exceptional situations such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or chemical leaks in order to protect the population and the economy.

This system includes prevention, preparedness, surveillance, early warning and hazard forecasting, risk variables and assessment, and alerting and guidance of the general population.

In addition to damaged crops and cuts in telecommunications and electricity, the rain left four Cubans dead and more than 1,200 homes partially or totally destroyed, according to official reports.

There have been around 100 partial collapses in Havana alone, where 2.2 million people live in its 15 municipalities, two of which have totally collapsed, and many areas have been flooded.

“When they announce rain, I fear for my life. Apart from fleeing through the walls, I am afraid that the roof will collapse on me,” pensioner Ofelia Nodarse confessed to IPS. She lives in a building that is almost 100 years old in the municipality of central Havana, and most of these buildings have had little or no maintenance over the past 60 years.

“Renovating a house is extremely expensive and buying a new home is completely out of the question. You can find all kinds of gear on the black market. A bag of cement (42 kg) costs almost a quarter of my monthly salary,” Professor Enrique Bermudez, another resident of this municipality, told IPS.

Bermudez earns just over $200 at the official exchange rate, but that sum drops to just $45 if you take into account the exchange rates that dominate the black market for necessities and shortages in stores. state-led.

Guillermina Alberja’s home in El Fanguito, a neighborhood of Havana, was one of those affected by torrential rains that hit several provinces in western and central Cuba in early June.

According to statistics, 37% of the more than 3.9 million Cuban properties are in normal or poor technical condition. Added to this is the deficit of more than 863,000 housing units in a country of 11.2 million inhabitants.

Cuba’s housing policy came into effect in 2019, a government plan that aims to eliminate this deficit within a decade and is implemented by the Ministry of Construction. However, it is already behind schedule.

In the first four months of this year, 7,914 houses were completed, or 20.8% of the nearly 38,000 that were to be completed in Cuba in 2022, according to official plans.

At the rate of 38,000 homes a year, it would take Cuba 22 years to make up that shortfall, not counting future damage from hurricanes or other natural disasters. Few believe that the conditions will be met to actually respect the plan.

The chronic economic crisis that has plagued the island for three decades and the decapitalization of its main industries are affecting the low production of cement, rebar, sand, gravel and other materials.

The US embargo is another factor working against the building materials industry, as it limits access to international credit to modernize the sector, the government explains.

Risk and investment management

However, the country must also invest in new works on the sewerage system, traps and gutters, as “many are blocked due to inadequate road repairs, lack of systematic cleaning of sewers, or because of garbage piling up on street corners or people throwing it in the street,” engineer Alexis Núñez told IPS.

Panoramic view of part of Havana during heavy rains in early June, which caused the first floods of the year in Cuba. About 37% of the island’s housing stock is in normal or poor technical condition; however, Cuba’s precarious financial situation makes the recovery of the construction sector even more difficult.

Living in the municipality of Playa, in the capital, in an area that “is always flooded when it rains heavily”. Nuñez pointed out that part of Havana’s drainage system “is collapsing because it’s over 100 years old.”

Studies recognize that good risk management and risk reduction at the local level can reduce the adverse consequences of natural disasters, which must go hand in hand with greater education of the masses to increase their perception of risks when weather events extremes occur.

“If hotels have to be built because tourism is a central point of the economy, then it is just as important – if not more so – that every Cuban has a decent home, where he is not afraid of losing his electrical appliances. when it rains”. or live with the anxiety that their building might collapse,” young architect Yanelis Peguero, who also lives in Playa, told IPS.

In 2021 alone, business services, construction activity and rentals, which include hotels and other tourism investments, accounted for 35.2% of all public investment in Cuba, compared to 1.7% for the housing construction sector, according to statistics from the Cuban Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI).

Other experts call for professions such as architecture – which is an activity that experts believe will help strengthen urban laws and improve the quality, safety, purpose and aesthetics of new construction projects – are finally authorized because they remain prohibited until now.

Forecasts estimate that the 2022 hurricane season, from June 1 to November 30 in the North Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, could be very active with the possible formation of 17 named tropical storms.

According to the Institute of Meteorology, based in Havana, there is an 85% chance that a tropical storm will hit Cuba during these months.

The “Repercussions in Latin America and the Caribbean of the war in Ukraine: how should the region face this new crisis?” ”, published on June 6 by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), shows that food represented 29.7% of total imports in Cuba in 2019, the third highest proportion of the 28 countries of the region.

Official statistics indicate that the island imports around 70% of the food it consumes.

Such figures imply great vulnerability with rising prices and unstable supplies, a situation that could worsen if a high-intensity hurricane hits the island, whose financial problems make it even more difficult to buy food on the island. ‘foreign.

Read more about Cuba here on Havana Times

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