Cuba’s decrepit buildings no match for Hurricane Irma

HAVANA (AP) – The historic but often decrepit buildings of Havana and other colonial Cuban cities couldn’t stand up to Hurricane Irma’s winds and rainfall, collapsing and killing seven people in one of the highest death tolls from the storm’s passage through the Caribbean.

Authorities said on Monday that three more people were killed by falling objects or drowning, pushing the death toll to 10 in Cuba and at least 24 others in the Caribbean. It was Cuba’s worst hurricane death toll since 16 died in Hurricane Dennis in 2005.

Most of Cuba’s grand old buildings were confiscated from the wealthy and distributed to the poor and middle classes after a 1959 revolution that promised housing, health care and education as universal rights. But with state salaries of about US$25 a month and government agencies strapped for cash, most buildings have seen little maintenance in decades.

Tropical rain and sea spray have chewed into unpainted facades and seeped through unpatched roofs. Trees have sprouted from balconies. Iron rebar has rusted, sloughing off chunks of powdery concrete.

Damage wasn’t limited to Havana. More than 100 houses in a small town on Cuba’s coastline were destroyed in Matanzas Province when Irma swept through the area, leaving hundreds of people homeless.

People affected by Hurricane Irma seek to save their belongings in their destroyed house in Isabela de Sagua, Cuba, on Monday. The storm ripped roofs off houses, collapsed buildings and flooded coastline across the Caribbean. – AP

On Galeano Street in Central Havana, a fourth-floor balcony dropped onto a bus carrying Maria del Carmen Arregoitia Cardona and Yolendis Castillo Martínez, both 27. In the cities of Matanzas, Ciego de Avila and Camaguey, three men in their 50s and 60s died in building collapses.

The government noted in a sternly worded press release that each “did not observe the behaviour recommended by Civil Defence”.

On Animas Street in Central Havana, 51-year-old Walfrido Antonio Valdes Perez was caring for his older brother, Roydis, who worked as a florist until he was diagnosed with HIV.

They lived on the second floor of building divided into 11 apartments, many of them divided by crude intermediate floors known as “barbeques”.

After midnight, as wind whipped the neighbourhood, a wall collapsed onto the roof of their building, crushing the two brothers to death.

No one noticed until the next morning, when neighbours saw a foot sticking out of the rubble.