Hurricane Irma highlights the problem of Havana’s crumbling homes

A couple floats down a flooded street in Havana atop a large piece of foam, after the passing of Hurricane Irma in Cuba on Sept. 10, 2017. Such flooding further damages poorly maintained homes and can lead to collapses.
A couple floats down a flooded street in Havana atop a large piece of foam, after the passing of Hurricane Irma in Cuba on Sept. 10, 2017. Such flooding further damages poorly maintained homes and can lead to collapses. AP

As Hurricane Irma approached, a balcony dislodged from the fourth floor of a Central Havana building and fell on a bus, killing two young women, and two brothers died in the same neighborhood when a wall from an adjoining building collapsed on to the roof of their dwelling.

While their deaths were poignant, falling architectural elements and collapsing buildings that splay bricks and timbers into the street are an all too common occurrence in Havana where some of the buildings people inhabit are centuries old and in poor repair. A good rain can cause a derrumbe (collapse).

In a preliminary report, the Cuban government said 4,288 homes in the capital were damaged by Irma. Even though Cuba generally executes hurricane preparedness and evacuation plans with military efficiency, the capital’s aging housing stock remains an Achilles heel.

And the worst may not be over for Havana’s buildings. When the sea surged over the Malecón seawall and flooded some neighborhoods more than a third of a mile inland, it rose more than five feet in some places and left everything coated with salt.

“Salt is an enormously destructive pollutant when it comes to buildings,” said Walter Sedovic, a New York architect who specializes in historic preservation and sustainable development, “and the salts are very hard to remove.”

Water-logged soil also can provide buoyancy for the foundations of old buildings. Once the water is gone and the effects of a storm seem to have completely receded, it’s not unusual to see displaced foundations, crooked buildings and further collapses, said Sedovic.

Many buildings along the Malecón that were flooded were built in the early 20th century. “Many of the buildings are in a fragile state,” said Sonia Chao, a research associate professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture. “When mixing concrete [for those buildings], they commonly used sea water. You have failures that can occur when you do that.”

Salt also causes iron rebar to rust.

Of the nearly 4,300 homes damaged in the capital, the government said 157 dwellings collapsed and were total losses, putting more pressure on Havana’s creaky and aged housing stock. There were 986 partial collapses, 818 homes lost their roofs, and 1,555 homes reported partial roof damage, according to a report in Granma, the newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party.

The toll for cultural institutions throughout the country: 211 damaged, including the José Lezama Lima House Museum. Floodwaters entered the former Central Havana home of Lezama Lima — a poet and writer who was one of the grand figures in Latin American literature — and damaged letters, diplomas and other archival material, according to Granma.

Cuba’s severe housing shortage has contributed to the problem of falling buildings. Even after buildings have been condemned, families often continue to live among the ruins because they have nowhere else to go or they prefer to squat rather than live in better housing on the outskirts of cities that are far from their jobs, services and better education opportunities.

Many decrepit buildings have been divided into tiny apartments, or floors have been added between stories, challenging the structural integrity of the buildings.

Irma’s floodwaters had scarcely receded when Havana officials decided to convene a media briefing to emphasize that they are taking steps to improve the city’s housing capacity. About 50,000 families are in need of new housing and about a quarter of the buildings in the capital are rated as being in “bad or passable” condition.

Well before the Cuban revolution, there was a housing deficit in Havana. “Between the wars, it was a common theme in architectural magazines of the era that more housing needed to be built in Havana,” Chao said.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Cuba lost its economic lifeline, there also was a great wave of migration to Havana in the 1990s as Cubans sought better opportunities or to cut expenses for costly commutes.

Some people settled wherever they could, even if it meant occupying “illegal or informal” dwellings with makeshift partitions. “Cubans made a choice not to live in distant suburbs because it was not realistic for their lives,” Chao said.

Euclides Santos, who is in charge of housing in Havana, said that under a program that began in 2012 to repair or replace homes, 10,000 dwellings have been delivered. The goal had been to deliver 3,000 homes per year, but a lack of financial resources has hampered the program.

Some Havana residents have been waiting nearly 20 years for better homes, and now the problem has been compounded by the homes that collapsed or were damaged by Irma.

In recent years, codes have been rewritten for Vedado and Havana’s historic center to guide infill housing and remodeling by Cubans themselves, Chao said. “The codes are very good, but they are only as good as the extent to which people are willing to enforce them,” she said.

Some of the lack of political will in code enforcement may result because there’s no place to immediately put all the people who are in substandard housing, Chao said.

Interest in establishing private bed and breakfasts and restaurants also has led to refurbishment of older buildings. Some of the improvements are well done and up to code; others are not, said Sedovic, who has visited Cuba. “Some of them are being held together with something as temporary as a paint coating,” he said.

To bring in money, family-based businesses often think they need to make modern improvements. But that might mean adding bathrooms on floors not designed for heavy fixtures. “The way the money is applied is aimed at making buildings more attractive but not addressing the problems of the buildings as a whole,” Sedovic said. “The behind-the-walls stuff needs to be concentrated on.”

When poorly maintained dwellings or buildings with makeshift construction are stressed by events such as being hit by a wall of water, Sedovic said, they may be pushed to their limits.

While Hurricane Irma helped highlight construction issues and Havana’s housing deficit, it will clearly require a lot of money to fix things. “I’m not sure where all the resources are coming from,” Sedovic said.

But in the meantime to help those displaced by Irma on an emergency basis, Granma reported that Cuba’s Ministry of Industries is prioritizing the production of building materials and essential furnishings. The ministry has made the manufacture of roofs, steel bars, mattresses and stoves a priority.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

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