By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - A year after Hurricane Sandy left Santiago de Cuba in shambles, the streets are clear and power, communications and water are back to normal, but residents of Cuba's second city are still struggling with the aftermath of the mighty storm.
Sandy, carrying 124-mph (200-km) winds, caught the city by surprise on the morning of October 25, 2012, damaging half the housing stock and most public buildings, killing 11 residents and laying waste to nearby crops and fruit orchards.
The storm later devastated parts of the U.S. East Coast.
"We were overconfident because a powerful hurricane had never penetrated Santiago. The mountains around the city would weaken them," recalled Zucel Estrada, who waits on tables at a private restaurant.
"When Sandy finally came, it was like Armageddon. The storm did not do away with the world, but it almost did away with Santiago," she said, in one of a number of telephone interviews this week with city residents.
Indeed, relatively few of the hurricanes to rip through Cuba have scored direct hits on Santiago de Cuba, 520 miles east of Havana and nestled at the foot of the Sierra Maestra mountains on the southern coast.
Santiago's 430,000 residents have since suffered through the May-through-October tropical summer and rainy season without the customary shade provided by the thousands of trees felled by Sandy. That misery has been compounded because many still lack adequate roofs to protect them from torrential rains.
"I can't sit any longer in Cesspedes Park, it is impossible. There are no more trees for shade, and Santiago without shade is almost like hell," resident Juan Ganzalez said.
"It is the same with the Plaza de Marte. We will have to wait till the trees grow back, that is if the heat doesn't get us first," he said.
With Cuba cash-strapped and under a U.S. economic embargo for decades, housing construction moves slowly, and there is an estimated shortage of 700,000 units.
While many of Santiago's public and commercial buildings have been repaired, housing will take time.
171,000 HOMES DAMAGED
Sandy damaged 171,000 homes, of which almost 16,000 were destroyed and 22,000 others partially destroyed. The rest experienced roof damage.
As part of recovery efforts, local authorities hope to build 21,400 apartments by 2019.
Retiree Raul Chacon's house escaped with minor damage, but not his neighbor's, which was reduced to rubble.
"They used the material from the house and some aid from the state to build a rustic shelter where it once stood so they could keep living there," Chacon said.
"Now they have to wait till there are materials to rebuild or they are assigned one of the new apartments they are building in the urban development zones. But you know, that's going to take a long time and they are not living well," he said.
While aid has flowed in from various governments and organizations, it falls far short of what is needed.
People are living with relatives and friends, in government shelters, or in makeshift homes.
"They have taken care of 78,954 cases so far, 46 percent of those affected," the Communist Party daily, Granma, reported earlier this month.
Cubans do not have property insurance.
Granma reported the government was selling subsidized materials to residents and offering low-interest loans in hopes the population would repair and build without further assistance. But it acknowledged materials would remain in short supply and that authorities had put dozens behind bars for speculating.
"The city has practically recovered except for the housing, because of course in one year it hasn't been possible to replace the thousands of homes that were reduced to rubble," said a local doctor, who asked to be identified as Yumaris.
"The people are complaining that the process of assigning materials is not well organized and many of them are desperate to repair or rebuild their homes," she said.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by David Adams and Peter Cooney)