Warning lights

Havana’s fate and hurricanes.

Foto: Jorge Luis Baños

“Hurricane, hurricane, I feel you coming…”

José María Heredia


The city of Havana is approaching its half a century of existence. The date, with a high symbolic and historic meaning, will be an occasion for surely deserved celebrations and tributes that Havanans will enjoy with the pride of living in one of the most charismatic and singular cities of the world: an overflowing and pretentious city, facing the sea, full of constructions with a high cultural, historic, architectural, aesthetic value.

But late last April three hours of intense rains and gusts of wind of around 100 kilometres per hour caused the collapse of extensive areas of this almost half-century city, always located in an area of summer storms, and on the route of the cold fronts sent from the continent and the devastating tropical hurricanes.


The result of the brief storm in April was dramatic and revealing: three total and several partial collapses, flooding in extensive areas of several Havana municipalities, minor damages in many homes with problems related to their roofs and air tightness and a great deal of losses of material goods of the inhabitants of areas most affected by the floods caused by the storm.


The images that have circulated through diverse means, including the official ones, have been shocking. Cars dragged by the water, buses full of passengers flooded by the rain, people in the streets with the water up to their waste, homes demolished as if there had been a high level earthquake on the telluric scales.


This entire scene, created by a brief storm with gusts in the range in which the yearly Lent winds move, has again awoken the ancient fear of the island’s inhabitants (present among us since pre-Columbian times), in this specific case of the Havanans, in the face of what could happen if, in the meteorological lottery we participate every year, we have to receive a hurricane of medium or great intensity, with several days of heavy rains and strong sustained winds…. It could simply be the apocalypse.


What occurred with the last storm in April demonstrated once again situations and realities that we are all acquainted with and suffer: the precarious state of a great deal of the infrastructure, the insufficient draining capacity of the city sewage system, the problems with the collection of solid waste and the high state of deterioration of the constructive heritage of a city in which around two million persons live. But, out of those city inhabitants, a larger amount lives in old and badly conserved zones and many others in “settlements” or almost invisible emerging barrios, but which exist and are increasingly more numerous and populated, in which an overwhelming percentage of homes have been built with inappropriate materials, in vulnerable and non-urbanised zones and, of course, without the most elementary technical requirements.


A new warning light has lit up. Or the one that has been lit up for years has become brighter.


How can one respond to the latent danger that lies ahead and avoid the disaster? Obviously, it is not a question of individual solutions, though these are necessary and can mitigate the damages, since each citizen who is able to improve the physical condition of his home runs less risks in the face of what will inevitably occur at some time. But the economic conditions of the most threatened (vulnerable) families does not permit them – have not been permitted for many years – to face the costs of a deep repair of a building and, much less, the building of a new one. The current prices of construction materials and the work force are prohibitive for someone who depends on a Cuban official wage.


The solutions that until now have been given by the State and the government are not sufficient, since the housing renovation plans, the handing over of state locales to families living in shelters or needy people and the construction of new buildings will never be enough to cover the accumulated needs and much less anticipate the ones that could be created in the face of the danger of being hit by an intense hurricane. Even the methods of cleaning the sewage systems (which are complicated with the problems of collecting the “garbage”) have shown to be inefficient in many areas of the capital, where water is stagnated, streams overflow, the sanitary drainage collapses, with the subsequent essential and collateral damages.


It is evident that there is a pressing need to seek new alternatives that, together with the old plans and slow solutions applied until now, speed up a process of recovery of the island’s urban areas, especially the Cuban capital, where the major percentage of the country’s built area is concentrated, old and badly conserved, treated for years with remedies and not with definitive cures. And even with apathy.


In its half century of existence, Havana has once again demonstrated, with three hours of rain, its physical vulnerability. Saving the city, improving the living conditions of its inhabitants is an enormous challenge that does not allow for more delays…or…what we are already aware of. Like the poet Heredia we can all feel how the hurricane approaches. (2015)


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