Monday, May 01, 2006

Cubans feeling vulnerable as another hurricane season approaches

The Kansas City Star

Posted on Sun, Apr. 30, 2006

BY MIKE CLARY

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

NIQUERO, Cuba - Jutting into the Caribbean Sea like a boxer's chin, this area of small towns and sugar cane fields near Cuba's southernmost point looks like a target no hurricane could miss.

Yet for several generations, this coastal pocket on the lee side of the Sierra Maestra seemed immune from harm.

"The mountains protected us," said life-long resident Hector Martinez, 67, recalling how tempest after tempest was either deflected or robbed of its punch.

But last July, for the first time in memory, a major storm roared up the Jamaica Channel, cracked the glass in the Cabo Cruz lighthouse, and raked the promontory with winds as high as 145 mph.

Hurricane Dennis killed 16 people in Cuba, including 13 in Granma province, and destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes in a nation already reeling under a housing crisis.

Now, on the cusp of another hurricane season predicted to be as busy as the last, many local residents living in barely patched-up houses admit that last July's Category 4 storm shredded a sense of invulnerability that once sustained them.

"The problem is that we always had faith that nothing like this could happen," said Marco Lamello, 66, a retired office worker who narrowly escaped death when the wood-frame house in which he lived collapsed around him. "But it did happen. That storm destroyed a big part of Niquero."

More than 450 miles from Havana, this region is well off the track for most Cubans and visitors alike, save for a small number of tourists who seek out the back roads for bicycle touring or who dive the crystalline waters. Many campesinos live in small cottages with roofs thatched with palm fronds.

Neither those roofs, nor those made from sheets of zinc, were any match for Dennis, a storm that Cuban President Fidel Castro declared on July 7 had "arrived, with all its diabolical force."

Dennis made landfall near the central province of Cienfuegos, crossed the island to emerge in the Gulf of Mexico and then on July 10 blasted into the Florida Panhandle. The hurricane was blamed for an additional 22 deaths in Haiti, three in the United States and one in Jamaica - 42 lives in all.

According to the Cuban government figures, Dennis caused about $1.4 billion in damage and destroyed 20,000 homes on the island. In Niquero, more than 90 percent of the homes were either destroyed or damaged.

In Cuba there are no blue tarps, FEMA trailers, or trucks delivering ice to sweltering storm victims. There is no homeowners insurance.

Soon after the storm passed, Castro announced a plan to build 100,000 new homes by the end of the year. And in the center of Niquero, an open-air manufacturing operation is turning out cement blocks.

The wait for materials is long, however, so the well-honed Cuban talent for inventiveness has kicked in. Lamello, his wife Margarita Miyano, 56, and four other family members are living in a cabin the family built from the ruins of the house. What was once a wall becomes a makeshift roof, and planks from an interior divider are nailed into a bed frame.

At the other end of the cement slab is another tiny shelter for Guillermo Garriga Dominguez, 54, and his wife, along with the couple's pregnant daughter Illiana, 24, and her husband, family physician Leonardo Diez, 30. They once lived in the downstairs part of the 100-year-old house.

"We will rebuild," said Garriga Dominguez, "but we are still waiting to hear when we will get the materials."

Next door, under a roof that did not blow away but is now full of holes, live Leonor Macareno, 60, and her husband, retired cook Luis Rosello, 63. "It seems strange to say that we never worried that much about hurricanes," said Macareno, who has lived in the same house for 42 years. "But we worry now because the forecasters say that once something like this happens, it is likely to happen again."

Equally worried are the people of Cabo Cruz, the southernmost point in Cuba, about 20 miles south or here. The lighthouse, built is 1871, is working, but a small museum adjacent to the tower is closed for repairs.

Weeks after the storm passed, an assessment team from New York-based Church World Service arrived in Niquero to survey the damage.

"Usually Cuba does a good job of evacuating people," said Don Tatlock, emergency response coordinator who set the stage for the delivery of almost $900,000 worth of aid, more than half dedicated to building 100 new homes. "But in this area many thought it was a drill. They are in shock that they suffered such damage."

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