Havana Is More Vulnerable Than Ever to Thunderstorms and Downpours / Ivan Garcia

Inundaciones-en-La-Habana1-_mn-620x330Ivan Garcia, 12 May 2105 — On Campanario Street, in the Havana neighborhood of Pueblo Nuevo, where in the fall of 2013 tremendous downpours caused the collapse of a house and the death of its two residents, all that remains is a vacant lot.

Several boys play there, seeing who can throw a piece of stone from the old foundation the farthest. Across the street, a man surveys the scene, sitting silently on a wooden stool, smoking, listening on a battery-powered radio to the Champions League game between Real Madrid and Juventus.

“A year and a half ago my neighbors, Fidel Vega and Pastora Góngora, died when the roof of their house collapsed. There was a tremendous roar in the middle of the night, as if a bomb had gone off. Now, since the April 29th rains, many more houses and apartments in Pueblo Nuevo have suffered damage,” he says quietly.

He is silent for a few seconds. Then he suddenly raises his voice and asserts that the storm caught the Civil Defense and the authorities unprepared. “Nobody showed up here to warn us, like they did before. Any downpour will flood the area and cause building collapses. If a category five hurricane passes through Havana, it would bury the city. The government is focused on other things—on speeches and propaganda,” he says indignantly.

When you walk through densely populated areas of Central and Old Havana, you can see that 70% of the housing is in fair or poor condition.  Recent rains have left their mark. Dozens of houses still show traces of moisture on their walls. On Vives Street, in Jesus Maria, some people lost all their belongings.

“They could only get out with the clothes on their backs. It was thanks to neighborhood solidarity that they were not buried by the rubble. Some people built crude boats with rubber inner tubes and pieces of styrofoam. The firefighters never came. The authorities and the provincial government were involved in preparations for May Day. That bunch of scoundrels doesn’t care what happens to the people in these poor neighborhoods. They live the high life,” says an elderly woman, visibly upset.

The Institute of Meteorology forecast heavy rains for the coming days in the western part of the country. Heavy rains have also caused flooding and landslides in Baracoa, in the eastern end of Cuba.

According to Jose Rubiera, head of the weather forecasting department, a depression that could become a tropical storm is forming in the Straits of Florida.

All of this indicates that May will be a very rainy month on the island. And the Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1. Many Havanans wonder if the city’s infrastructure can withstand rain and winds of greater intensity without collapsing.

“If with four hours of rain, and wind gusts of 98 kilometers per hour, electricity was cut in several municipalities of Havana and the low-lying areas were flooded, I have no doubt that if a hurricane hits, or if it rains for three or four days in a row, the collapses and tragedies will be even greater,” said a capital taxi driver.

Most of the city’s drains stop working with moderate downpours. And the most densely populated neighborhoods, like Centro Habana, Habana Vieja, Cerro, or the flat areas of Diez de Octubre, flood immediately with heavy rains.

The Civil Defense noted the lack of foresight for Wednesday April 29. These days, work brigades are clearing sewers and cutting tree branches that could damage power lines.

Families living in houses in danger of collapsing have been advised that during bad weather they should take refuge in sites approved by the municipal government, or in secure dwellings of neighbors or relatives.

While part of Havana Vieja has been renovated with hard-currency cafes, hotels, and shops, so that tourists will spend money and take photos, in the adjacent neighborhoods a large number of properties are held in place by a miracle.

A heavy rain or tropical storm could cause major damage to the city. State neglect is taking a toll on Havana. The only thing left is to pray.