Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Holguin Rebuilding Problems

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Shortages hamper attempts to rebuild after Hurricane Ike

The hammer will not leave Alfredo Pérez's side as he sleeps under the night sky.

With no roof over his head -- like many in this seaside village -- Pérez uses the hammer to protect his family's valuables from intruders who may want to pilfer the crumbled chunks of brick, rusty nails, and aged wooden beams he has salvaged and plans to use to rebuild his home ''poquito a poquito'' or ``little by little.''

Supplies are hard to come by. Even the rusty nails bent out of shape are a hot commodity throughout the northeastern provinces hardest hit by Hurricane Ike -- a storm that slammed into this region on Sept. 7 as a major Category 3 storm with 125 mph winds and gained strength at various times during its two-day trek across the island.

''This will set us back 100 years,'' Pérez said of Ike's impact on Cuba, an island in which many regions outside the capital city of Havana still rely on horse and buggy as a means of transportation.

Whatever Ike's winds did not take from the Pérez family was left at the mercy of the thrashing waves. Their home, like numerous others in the town, was steps away from the turquoise blue sea.

''Do you know what an atomic bomb does?'' asked resident José Armando León, 72, standing near an open field where his house once stood in the neighboring city of Banes. ``This is what happened here, it's like an atomic bomb was dropped and we were left with nothing.''

The ferocity of Ike's island-wide path of destruction is no longer news to villagers who have been living in the devastation for two weeks. They understand the magnitude of the storm -- the fact that more than 444,000 homes were damaged across the country, 932 of those in the northeastern Holguín province. They know about the eight storm-related deaths and that thousands of acres of crops like banana and sugar cane were ravaged.

They can deal with the thought of not having a roof over their head -- grateful that neighbors, relatives and schools offer shelter. Even hunger is not much of an issue as neighbors share food and batches of rice and plantains are cooked at local schools for dinners.

The information most residents here seek from outsiders trickling in from more populated urban areas is any updates on reconstruction efforts. With phone lines still down, villagers rely on those passing through town to relay information. And rumors are rampant.


Some residents said local leaders have told them the Venezuelan government was tallying the homes without roofs and would dispatch supplies and workers to help rebuild. Others clung to hopeful rumblings that churches outside of the country were going to be allowed to bring donations to the remote areas.

While hoping for supplies to come in, most families aren't waiting around for the government to fix their crumbling homes, clear the roads or erect downed electric poles.

''We're just helping until the government can come out and help. It's all of our duty,'' said Hugo Alberto Betancourt, 80, as he and three others attempted to position the concrete post of an electric pole into place in Banes.

Outside of the nearby beach town of Gibara, just 30 minutes west of Banes, a man named José Ricardo, 32, washed his buggy in a stream that covered what was normally the road out of town.

When the water finally subsides, he and other neighborhood volunteers plan to clear the drainage system of all the debris caused by Ike. He said the neighbors had no qualms about fixing the road themselves in the absence of government assistance.

''We do it for the good of everyone,'' he said. ``Do you know what it's like to have to pull off your shoes and roll up your pants to walk in the water everyday?''

Like his neighbors, Pérez wasted no time trying to figure out which pieces of wood were long enough to form into the shell of a roof. His wife, Irene, 60, walked about the neighborhood attempting to find spoons, cups, clothes that the sea waves pushed as far as three blocks from their home.

Irene said she regretted leaving behind these essentials and family photos she had posted on her walls when she followed government orders to evacuate before Ike struck. The family fled to Banes where sturdier concrete apartment buildings fared better. She has not spoken much since Ike hit.

''I feel that if I open my mouth to talk about this my soul will escape out of my body,'' Irene said, as tears rolled down her blue eyes.


The Pérezes don't know when power will be restored, but from their house they can see a couple of blocks down the road where the state-run luxury hotel Las Brisas has power running via generators.

The government has placed a special focus on making sure hotels and urban centers have power, assuring that the mainly European tourists have air-conditioned rooms and hot running water.

The state-run newspaper Ahora, which covers Holguín province, recently reported that recovery priority has been placed on the tourism industry in the eastern provinces.

''The damage to hotels is recoverable,'' a hotel representative told Ahora. ``We have the resources needed to return to normality in a short time and get ready for the upcoming season.''

Down the street from Pérez's house, the Villa Bahia -- a seafood restaurant and popular tourist bar -- was shut down because of damage. But soon after Ike passed, government employees traveled from the southeastern province of Granma to help in recovery efforts. They gathered broken bits of brick by hand, attempting to form a wall. ''If we fix this now, it's good for the tourists,'' said a construction worker named Rufino as he laid down a brick. ``If it's good for the tourists, it's good for us.''

Repairs on the island have been a patchwork affair.

Some towns have had their straw-roof homes replaced with metal sheets just a week after the storm. In other towns, residents have been given two pieces of metal here, some straw for their roofs there. Further delaying progress in the eastern provinces is the fact that areas on the western end of the island like Pinar del Río and the Isle of Youth were battered by back-to-back storms starting with Hurricane Gustav on Aug. 30.

Pérez predicted he would be able to rebuild his roof within a month. But he was not sure when he might be able to replace the other basic possessions lost to the storm, including a mattress, plates and cups.


His wife has joined neighbors on a daily trek.

When the sun begins to set, she heads inland by foot to spend the night at a friend's apartment more than 30 minutes away. Her husband, like other men of Playa Guardalavaca, stays behind with the hammer at his side to guard what's left of their tattered home.

Looking toward the tranquil sea whose ferocious waves swept away their possessions, Pérez repeated the mantra spoken by many throughout Cuba's remote areas.

''`La vida no es facil,'' he said. ``Life is not easy.''

The name of the correspondent who filed this report was withheld because the journalist lacked the visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.

© 2008 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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