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UN Lauds Cuba as Model
Of Hurricane Preparedness


The Numbers Game

Statistics, especially the grand, hard-to-fathom kind, have a tendency to numb, becoming just another string of numbers. Some of the statistics related to Cuba's hurricane preparedness and response strategy however, are truly dazzling and speak for themselves, including these from Hurricane Ivan:

Sustained winds were clocked at 124 mph; gusts reached over 161 mph

In just 24 hours, 6 inches of rain fell in the town of Isabel Rubio; the 24-hour record for this hurricane

In the aftermath, 5,296,500 cubic feet of solid waste filled Havana´s streets; garbage brigades were collecting up to 1,059,300 cubic feet daily

Early evacuation plan allows 100,000 people to be evacuated safely in less than 3 hours

2492 evacuation centers were set up

1,898,396 people were evacuated (that's more than 15% of the total population)

Of those evacuated, fully 78% or 1,471,058 people, were sheltered in the homes of family, friends or neighbors.

8,026 tourists were transferred to safe areas

359,644 boarding school students were transferred to their homes

1,898,160 farm animals in vulnerable areas were moved to safer ground

By Conner Gorry

Staccato bursts of hammer fall punctuated the air, every available jug, bucket and bottle was filled with potable water and radios and televisions beamed the latest from the Cuban Institute of Meteorology into homes and workplaces countrywide. Mean while, evacuation centers were readied to receive tens of thousands, roofs were cleared of debris, farm animals were transferred to safe areas and citrus was picked at lightening speed.

So went the several days of preparation for Hurricane Ivan, the most powerful hurricane to hit Cuba in 50 years and the fifth most powerful to ever strike the Caribbean. Despite sustained winds of over 124mph and nearly 2 million people evacuated, there was zero loss of life and no injuries, leading the United Nations to praise Cuba as a model for the world in disaster preparedness.

According to Salvano Briceño, Director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, “the Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions, and even in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their population as well as Cuba does.”

Reports indicate that 52 people died in the United States and at least 70 in the Caribbean during Hurricane Ivan.

Practice Makes Almost Perfect

Coming just a month after Hurricane Charley ripped through Havana, killing four and causing more than US$1 billion worth of damage to property and crops, Ivan, a category 5 hurricane, was met with a monumental preparation program that could serve as a global model. Experts point to several facets of the comprehensive Cuban strategy that allowed the small, developing country to limit damage and weather the storm with no loss of human life.

Foremost is the political will of the Cuban government to prioritize disaster preparedness and work together with citizens to design and implement a comprehensive risk reduction program. This includes emergency plans for the national, provincial, municipal and local levels, updated annually. Shaping and implementing these plans falls largely to a net work of Civil Defense units which divide disaster preparedness into four specific phases: informative, alert, alarm and recovery.

The commitment to saving human lives is first priority in the Cuban strategy. Primarily, this is achieved through education from an early age about the dangers associated with hurricanes and how to prepare and act in the event of one; a reliable early warning system that disseminates information leading up to a hurricane, but also during and after; and early evacuation. This last is critical, as hazard assessment specialists point to the refusal to evacuate as a major cause of death in hurricane situations. Indeed, refusal to evacuate partly explains why Florida suffered more loss of life than Cuba in recent hurricanes, including Charley, when four people died in Cuba, while 27 perished in Florida. According to Oxfam America's exhaustive report entitled Weathering the Storm: Lessons in Risk Reduction in Cuba, " Cuba's success in saving lives through timely evacuation when a hurricane strikes is a model of effective, government-driven disaster preparedness."

It is worth noting that many of these are self-evacuations, carried out in a judicious and conscientious manner by people with generations of accumulated hurricane experience. Fully 78% of the total number of people evacuated were housed in the homes of friends or family; in Pinar del Río, the province hit the hardest during Hurricane Ivan, that figure is a staggering 90%. Contrary to what some have reported in the international press, evacuations are not mandatory in Cuba, nor do they need to be: a category 3 or 4 hurricane harnesses it´s own power of persuasion as to the merits of evacuation.

Another pivotal aspect of the Cuban program is guaranteeing the health of the population during and after a hurricane. From securing the supply of potable water to accelerating garbage pick-up so as to prevent infestation, decades of extreme weather events in Cuba have honed the strategy. During Ivan, for example, 2,000 medical and sanitation teams were posted in the areas of greatest risk, in case a rapid hygiene and health response was needed, diesel generators were installed at pumping stations to guarantee drinking water, plus chlorine supplies were laid in to permit water purification. Furthermore, whenever evacuations are called for, the sick, elderly and pregnant women are given priority and doctors and nurses go with them to provide on-site medical attention.

Other steps that are de rigueur in Cuban hurricane preparedness include detailed instructions in print and broadcast media on how to secure your home and the safest place to be during a hurricane; accelerated harvesting to ensure foodstuffs; safeguarding and securing schools, clinics and hospitals; the preparation of short-cycle crops to be planted during the recovery phase; and clearing trees near telephone and electrical wires. In addition, when winds reach a certain velocity, the electric company simply cuts the power – saving countless lives that otherwise might be lost to electrocution. The solidarity of friends, family and neighbors to provide shelter for others, help hurricane-proof homes, feed the hungry and do whatever it takes to recover once a hurricane has blown through, is unshakable and another potent ingredient in Cuba's successful formula.

Solidarity in hurricane prediction and preparedness even extends across the Straits: despite the polarized politics that have defined relations between Washington and Cuba for decades, meteorologists and scientists from both countries have built a strong record of cooperation in their shared aim of saving lives and reducing risk.

Honing the Strategy

Still, there is always room for improvement and as threatening weather events occur with more frequency and ferocity, especially in the global south.

Several new initiatives marked the coming of Hurricane Ivan, particularly regarding evacuations. Leaving your home to be cast to the four winds is neither easy, nor pleasant. In Cuba, evacuation is made more tolerable by the possibility of bringing your pets (with veterinarians on-site at evacuation centers!) and, in some provinces, a service was provided allowing people to box their valuables and have them transported and stored in a safe, guarded place. In some localities, community residents even took it upon themselves to dismantle the roofs of schools and store them safely.

These are praiseworthy developments which should be repeated and replicated. On the flip side, better education on how to prune trees safely away from electrical and telephone wires is needed. The environmental massacre that happened in Havana before Ivan, with people chopping down trees indiscriminately, sometimes leaving only shoulder-height stumps should not recur. Havana, especially, needs more systematic garbage collection, including periodic 'big garbage' days, so all the junk people are clearing from their roofs don´t litter the streets becoming potential projectiles the day before a category 4 storm hits.

Only when governments harness the political will and work together with their populace towards safer standards and practices in the face of disaster, will the tragedy witnessed in the rest of the Caribbean and the US be the exception, rather than the rule. Luckily, Cuba provides valuable lessons for successful disaster risk reduction, ones which other countries will hear about at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, to be held in January 2005 in Japan.

Click here to download Oxfam America's Report, "Weathering the Storm: Lessons in Risk Reduction from Cuba"

Click here to find out about the World Conference on Disaster Reduction

Click here to learn more about hurricanes.

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