preparedness seen as essential to national security, economy
(This is a reprint of an article that appeared in the Sun-Sentinel. Progreso
Weekly decided to print it because it may the first of its kind written in the
– They have no Astrodome or cruise ships to house evacuees, and meals-ready-to-eat
usually consist of rice and beans.
But Cubans have weathered some of the most violent storms the tropics can churn
up, with surprisingly low death tolls and almost perfect compliance with
Last year, United Nations emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland singled out
Cuba for praise among Caribbean nations for hurricane-evacuation planning. When
Hurricane Ivan swiped the island last September, for example, Cuba didn't record
a single death, while 115 people died in other parts of the region. The same
month, Hurricane Jeanne killed more than 1,500 in Haiti, with many drowning in
Now, as analysts and politicians examine how the U.S. government responded to
Hurricane Katrina -- and perhaps avoid a similar catastrophe in the future --
some say this communist island may have a few lessons to offer.
Cuban evacuations are mostly carried out by community groups that take their
cues from the government. The military assists, but the Cuban troops are not
views hurricanes as a top national security priority… and they know the drill,"
said Dan Erikson, Caribbean specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue, a
Washington think tank. Besides putting lives in peril, he said hurricanes
represent a threat to Cuba's economic underpinnings: agriculture and tourism.
"The drill" Erikson refers to includes yearly military exercises, across the
island, with two-day training sessions for emergency workers, simulated
evacuations and reviews of emergency plans.
When hurricanes come barreling through, Cuba's four state-run television
stations run nonstop evacuation orders and weather reports. The coverage is
anchored by President Fidel Castro, who coordinates response during live
broadcasts as if waging battle against an invading army.
"It's an organized system, in a pyramid structure," said Gabriel Diaz Ramirez, a
Cuban pediatrician dispatched to Indonesia earlier this year to treat survivors
of the tsunami. "We have our government's support."
Diaz is one of 1,500 Cuban doctors Castro has offered to send to the United
States to help out in the swamped and fetid neighborhoods left behind by
Hurricane Katrina. The State Department suggested that it probably won't need
the help, citing "robust" medical resources at home.
Perhaps the most striking element of Cuba's disaster preparedness is that most
residents obey evacuation orders without question. The government says it
evacuated 1.5 million people ahead of Hurricane Dennis, in July. The majority
joined family members in safe zones, and 245,000 flocked to state-run shelters.
This is a point of stark contrasts and debate in New Orleans, where thousands
decided to ride out the storm at home and were later plucked from flooded attics,
or perished. Others still refuse to leave still, even as toxic muck swamps the
streets and armed forces move in this week to carry out mandatory evacuations.
"The population is very educated, and they know they are going to a secure
place, and that their belongings won't be stolen [while they are gone]," said
Dr. Jose Andres Cabrales, another member of the medical mission offering to
travel to the United
States. "They are
evacuated with plenty of warning. Even cattle are evacuated."
Erikson suggested that the smooth displacements are a product of the
government's tight control over residents.
"It's still a police state," he said. "You could say one advantage they may have
is the ability to move large numbers of people in a short amount of time. But of
course the political environment in Cuba makes it difficult to resist those
kinds of orders."
Jose Rubiera, director of the Cuba's Institute of Meteorology, said U.S.
authorities had failed to explain the gravity of the situation to those in the
storm's path, and to provide transportation for everyone who needed it.
"The forecast was excellent," he said. "There was a lot of warning time. I think
what failed was provisions: money for fuel, an explanation of what would happen,
transportation ... planes if necessary."
Rubiera said Cuban shelters, however humble, are staffed with doctors, nurses
and psychiatrists, and stocked with clean water, food and televisions. Buses and
industrial trucks are dispatched to move families to safety.
Experts have long urged countries to focus their disaster plans on similar
"We need a change in mentality. You get a lot of headlines for foodstuffs for
those who are already in disasters," said Egeland, of the United Nations, when
he gave Cuba high marks for disaster planning last year. "You don't get any
headlines for prevention."
Morris can be reached at
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