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
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