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Cuba still dealing with Tropical Storm Noel's aftermath

Cuba still dealing with Tropical Storm Noel's aftermath
Cuba's eastern provinces are still hurting many weeks after record rains
swelled rivers and destroyed crops.
Posted on Thu, Dec. 20, 2007

BAYAMO, Cuba —
Juan and Andrea got out in the nick of time, just before the Río Cauto's
fierce waters swelled so high they could barely see the top of their tin
roof as it floated away.

''It was not three hours before that water was over our heads,'' Juan
said, recounting last month's storm that destroyed his home and at least
1,000 others. “I had not seen water like that since 1963.''

With crops ruined and money tight, many Cubans throughout the eastern
provinces are still feeling the effects of Tropical Storm Noel's
record-breaking rains. Many homes are in shambles, is in short
supply and the list of needed repairs is long.

The last time it rained this hard was 44 years ago, when Hurricane Flora
killed 1,200 people, including 700 along the Río Cauto.

While Noel left at least 147 dead around the Caribbean and later turned
into a hurricane, only one fatality was reported in Cuba. But the Cuban
government has acknowledged losses of some $500 million, including $91
million in crops and tens of thousands of acres of farmland flooded. A
nation with an already precarious food supply and inefficient
industry lost 20,000 tons of food, the government said.


Juan and Andrea lost their humble wooden home, along with all of its
contents and some of their farm animals, and are now living in an
unfinished shack they were building beside it. Their neighbor Miguel was
plucked off his roof by a rescue helicopter as waters kept rising.
Another, Leonardo, has only the clothes he wore the day the
storm-swollen Río Cauto, Cuba's longest, washed away his house.

''We are just going to have to struggle and start life over again,''
said Leonardo, a farmer in his 40s.

Storm victims were promised construction materials and three months of
free food. Three weeks after the Oct. 30 storm, help still hadn't
arrived, although several people interviewed said they had received aid
from church groups.

''Basically, all the vegetables everyone had planned on eating in
December and January are gone. We lost it all,'' said Alfredo, who is
doing brisk business these days selling construction materials at a
state business in . “Right now, it's not the shortages
that are killing us but the prices. If a pound of tomatoes cost seven
pesos before, now it's 10.''

The government said initial estimates showed nearly 22,000 homes were
affected by rain that began in October and did not stop until
mid-November. By the time Noel hit, the soil was already soaked and the
reservoirs already overflowing.

Damage was spread throughout the island's eastern provinces, but the
areas along the Cauto River — which stretches along , Holguín and
Santiago de Cuba provinces — were most affected. With 3,000 homes under
water, the city of Río Cauto in Granma province was the nation's worst
off, the government media reported.

The government-controlled media has offered spirited accounts of
recovery efforts but acknowledged that food needs will not be met for
the rest of the year.


A recent visit to the eastern provinces — before Tropical Storm Olga
dropped moderate rains on the region but caused no damage — showed the
vast majority of homes suffered no damage. Crews were busy repairing
washed-out roads, and the water had receded for all but the unluckiest
of farmers.

''I pretty much have to start from scratch,'' said Abraham, 60, who lost
five goats and all his parsley, tomatoes and plantain crops in Santiago
de Cuba province. “I lost 600 pesos [$30]. That's over four months of
work. It's really sad.''

His farm was still under water, and he had to let his handful of workers go.

The government said the nation's beleaguered housing stock also took a
heavy blow: Raging waters destroyed 1,137 homes and took 18,000 roofs.
It will cost at least $128 million to fix, the government media reported.

But the island is already short some 600,000 housing units, and
officials now admit that workers never broke ground on many of the
150,000 new units allegedly built last year. The government had planned
to build 72,000 homes in eastern Cuba in 2007, but construction began on
barely half, according to government figures.

''They gave us three bags of cement,'' said Melania, who lost the
bathroom and kitchen roof of her wooden shack in Bayamo. “The water was
so high, I could not see my house for two days. What am I supposed to do
now with three bags of cement?''

The government has stressed the ''hard work'' it will take in coming
months to recover.

Cuba's labor union said it dispatched 100,000 volunteers to help
rebuild, including soldiers, housewives and students. In articles
replete with revolutionary rhetoric, the news media said construction
and repairs to homes, roads, coffee crops and other foods were top


''Urgent and abundant state help has arrived in Granma since the start
of the disaster,'' Bayamo Radio reported.

The country's transportation minister vowed to have all roads fixed
within five years, noting that Granma province alone lost more than half
its roads.

Construction Minister Fidel Figueroa told the media that 78 work crews
will operate in Granma the first three months of next year. Jesús
Infante, of Granma's provincial assembly, said rebuilding has
begun with the materials that arrived, but some of the damaged housing
stock dates back to 2005's Hurricane Dennis, Radio Bayamo reported.

''The government gives us everything we need,'' said Teresa, a Granma
housewife who weeks after the storm was still drying out pieces of
cotton in the hot sun in the hopes of reconstructing her mattress.

“We lost almost everything. What can we do? Sleep on the floor. The
tomatoes and other crops won't be planted because the land is too wet.
We'll eat something else.''

The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this
report and the surnames of the people quoted, because the reporter did
not have the visa required by the Cuban government to report
from the island.

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