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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 October 2005, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Havana 'waist-deep' in storm waters

By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Havana

Residents in Havana being rescued
Residents are rescued following warnings of more bad weather

On Sunday night in Havana, thousands of people made the grave mistake of thinking that Hurricane Wilma was no longer a threat to Cuba.

The storm did appear out of harm's way.

The winds had died down and the seas were almost calm.

Despite repeated warnings from Cuba's chief meteorologist Jose Rubiera that the worst was yet to come, there was no sign of it.

So Josefa went to bed in her apartment, deep in the basement of one of Havana's art deco homes on the Malecon, the capital's seafront promenade.

Pouring in

From the outside, the building encapsulates the elegant decay which tourists in Cuba love to photograph. But inside, the living conditions are squalid.

The 50-year-old mother lives with nine other members of her family, including her husband, a niece, her two children, her daughter-in-law and a one-year-old baby.

Her apartment was once the cellar of the original house. It has no bathroom. And it is below sea level.

Josefa turned down the option of going to the nearby Hispano-America cultural centre, just a few doors down the road.

It was the most solid building on the Malecon and was being used as a government shelter.

"I don't like the atmosphere there and I want to be with my things", she explains.

Hours later she received what she says was the biggest shock of her life. The sole window in her home smashed.

Sea water started pouring in.

Cuba is a model for the world. We are deeply humanitarian. We help those in need everywhere
Josefa, Havana

She and her family had only a few minutes to grab everything they could, and get out. All they managed to retrieve was a fridge, a couple of mattresses and some old photographs.

"Everything else - my beds, my video, my sofa - is still down there," she says, pointing to three concrete steps that lead down to a gloomy pool of water.

Outside, the Florida Straits is a swirl of white water. Spray from massive waves is blowing over the capital's 200ft lighthouse, built in the nineteenth century.

For four blocks inland, the water is waist-deep.

Down the road, the Cuban army has set up what appears to be a field camp near the hotel Melia Cohiba.

The area is one of the worst-affected by the floods. An entire neighbourhood has been completely covered with water.

Several hundred people need to be rescued before the next high tide.

Government challenge

"We are just here to save lives", Cuba's top commando says as he arrives on the scene.

The equipment the army is using to do so is an unusual mix of the old and the new Cuba.

There is the brute force of ex-Soviet lorries and amphibious vehicles alongside gleaming Yamaha personal watercraft, on loan from the Marina Hemingway Yacht Club.

People wading through flood waters in Havana
The floods are the city's worst in years

Over the following hours, hundreds of people are retrieved from the water.

A small minority looked noticeably less happy than others to be rescued. They were alleged looters, who were handed over in their wet clothes to the police.

The flooding of Havana is a challenge for the Cuban government.

It is widely praised for its dedication and efficiency in preparing for hurricanes.

The government says it organised the evacuation of more than 630,000 people before Wilma arrived.

But some Cubans complain that after the storms, it always takes the country far too long to restore the basic services of power and water to the population.

As Wilma approached Cuba, President Fidel Castro appeared on state television.

He described this country as a "model" for the rest of the world, in terms of preparing for natural disasters.

As she stares at her flooded apartment, Josefa agrees.

"It is true" she says. "Cuba is a model for the world. We are deeply humanitarian. We help those in need everywhere."

"Now", she adds, "I hope someone will help us."


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