Havana's crumbling buildings collapse in Irma, killing 7
HAVANA — The historic but often decrepit buildings of Havana and other colonial Cuban cities couldn't stand up to Hurricane Irma's winds and rainfall, collapsing and killing seven people in one of the highest death tolls from the storm's passage through the Caribbean.
Authorities said Monday that three more people were killed by falling objects or drowning, pushing the death toll to 10 in Cuba and at least 24 others in the Caribbean. It was Cuba's worst hurricane death toll since 16 died in Hurricane Dennis in 2005.
Most of Cuba's grand old buildings were confiscated from the wealthy and distributed to the poor and middle classes after a 1959 revolution that promised housing, health care and education as universal rights. But with state salaries of about $25 a month and government agencies strapped for cash, most buildings have seen little maintenance in decades.
Tropical rain and sea spray have chewed into unpainted facades and seeped through unpatched roofs. Trees have sprouted from balconies. Iron rebar has rusted, sloughing off chunks of powdery concrete.
Damage wasn't limited to Havana. More than 100 houses in a small town on Cuba's coastline were destroyed in Matanzas Province when Irma swept through the area, leaving hundreds of people homeless.
In every neighborhood, residents talk warily about the buildings that are one hurricane away from total collapse.
That hurricane came Saturday and Sunday as Irma ground up the northern coast, sending chest-high seawater six blocks into Central Havana and blasting the city with 60 mph winds.
On Galeano Street in Central Havana, a fourth-floor balcony dropped onto a bus carrying Maria del Carmen Arregoitia Cardona and Yolendis Castillo Martínez, both 27. In the cities of Matanzas, Ciego de Avila and Camaguey, three men in their 50s and 60s died in building collapses. The government noted in a sternly worded press release that each "did not observe the behavior recommended by Civil Defense."
On Animas Street in Central Havana, 51-year-old Walfrido Antonio Valdes Perez was caring for his older brother, Roydis, who worked as a florist until he was diagnosed with HIV. They lived on the second floor of building divided into 11 apartments, many of them divided by crude intermediate floors known as "barbeques."
After midnight, as wind whipped the neighborhood, a wall collapsed onto the roof of their building, crushing the two brothers to death.
No one noticed until the next morning, when neighbors saw a foot sticking out of the rubble.
"We felt something, but no one imagined the roof and barbeque had collapsed," said homemaker Yudisleidis Mederos, 34. "These building are in really bad shape. Their room was the best one."
She and her neighbors remembered Roydis, 54, as a kind and helpful man who had become a virtual family member, helping care for their children, feed them and put them down for naps.
Neighbors said they were ready to evacuate Saturday but emergency officials never asked them to leave.
On Monday, they showed the cracks running through the walls of their building, water leaking through the halls and living spaces, naked metal beams and loose gas pipes and electric cables.
"We've been trying to fix things for years. It's a shame that maybe they'll come now, only after two people have died," said homemaker Laritza Penalver, 49.
Havana was in recovery mode Monday, with crews cleaning away thousands of fallen trees and electric restored to a handful of neighborhoods. Schools were closed until further notice. President Raul Castro issued a message to the nation that didn't mention the deaths, but described damage to "housing, the electrical system and agriculture."