September 28, 1998

Cuba: 4 dead; thousands left without homes

Herald Staff Report
Published Sunday, September 27, 1998, in the Miami Herald

High waters threaten old Havana buildings

HAVANA -- Hurricane Georges whipped up giant waves and flooded parts of Havana Friday as Cuban officials reported four deaths, thousands of people homeless and major damage to agriculture from the storm's two-day battering.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of 15,000 people and seven tourist hotels in areas near the capital's seaside avenue, the Malecon, prone to flooding when winter storms trigger what Cubans call ``sea invasions.

Children stood on the Malecon's sea wall and let the 16-foot waves crash over them, despite warnings that they could be swept out to sea or into the storm drainage system.

The Malecon was closed to motor traffic. In some places it looked like the waves were going right over the sea wall and breaking into the fronts of the buildings on the south side of the avenue.

But Cubans were more concerned that Georges' heavy rains and strong winds would topple some of Havana's increasingly decrepit old buildings.

Chunks of fallen walls, balconies and eaves littered some of the streets of colonial-era Old Havana when a U.S. journalist walked around the area Friday.

``The sea floods the floor. The rains bring down the roof on your head, said Jose Manuel Del Toro, an accountant whose ground-floor apartment one block from the Malecon has flooded several times in recent years.

Havana authorities shut down Jose Marti International Airport, closed all schools, evacuated about 800 tourists from hotels near the Malecon and put several suburbs under flood warnings.

Civil Defense officials said they had no final totals but reported Georges killed at least four people, destroyed 200 homes, damaged 6,000 others and affected 100 factories and farms, mostly in the eastern half of the island.

Tourism Minister Osmani Cienfuegos said all 25,000 tourists on the island were safe.

There were no damage reports from the tourism centers of Varadero or the Cayo Coco area farther east, though one Havana radio report said Varadero had recorded a wind gust of 80 miles per hour.

``We have no electricity, no information at all, [just] pounding rain and too much sadness, said one woman in the northern city of Matanzas, between Havana and Varadero.

President Fidel Castro said most of the damage so far had been caused by strong winds that flattened trees and knocked down electricity and telephone lines in eastern Cuba.

Officials reported that Georges had ruined more than half of the coffee crop, which brings in $50 million a year in export earnings.

Civil Defense officials said the worst-hit areas appeared to be in the eastern province of Guantanamo, where 13 houses were destroyed, 599 were damaged and 2,200 feet of runway were washed away at the local airport.

Electricity had been restored to all but 14 municipalities in eastern Cuba by Friday, officials announced, but telephone calls to the region remained more difficult than usual.

About 500,000 people were evacuated from flood-prone areas as Georges lashed Cuba for a full day before leaving land near the Ciego de Avila area and heading for the 90-mile gap between Cuba and the Florida Keys.

But officials acknowledged that Georges could have a silver lining for Cuba.

Eastern Cuba, until this week suffering through its worst drought in more than 40 years, now has plenty of water. Reservoirs in the region jumped from 10 percent of capacity to 30 or 40 percent almost overnight, they said.

And if the bulk of Cuba's tourism centers came through Georges with relatively modest damage, the island stands to benefit from the dramatic destruction the hurricane wreaked on other Caribbean tourism centers.

Televised images of the death and destruction caused by any hurricane in the Caribbean usually push European and Canadian tourists toward other destinations for their winter vacations, industry analysts say.

But with many tourism centers in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Leeward Islands heavily damaged by Georges, Cuba stands to receive many of the ``snowbirds'' who insist on a Caribbean vacation this year, they said.

``If it's true that we've had lots of little damage, but nothing catastrophic, said a Western journalist in Havana, ``then the Cuban tourism industry may actually profit from all this.

Herald staff writer Juan O. Tamayo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald


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