St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Can we learn from Cuba's lesson?

The tiny country is known for its hurricane planning that keeps its people prepared and fatalities low.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published September 9, 2005

Before Hurricane Ivan whipped Cuba last year with 160 mph winds, the government evacuated nearly 2-million people. The result: not a single death or serious injury.

Although it is a small, poor country in the heart of hurricane alley, Cuba is widely acknowledged to do an exemplary job of protecting its 11.3-million residents from natural disasters. Its record is even more impressive in light of the catastrophic loss of life that the United States - the world's richest and most technologically advanced nation - is experiencing from Hurricane Katrina.

"Cuba has not only an evacuation plan but an overall plan for hurricanes and other disasters that is very well developed and organized," says Dusan Zupka of the United Nations' International Secretariat for Disaster Reduction.

"I would dare to say that Cuba is a good example for other countries in terms of preparedness and prevention."

Cuba's form of government - communist and authoritarian - undoubtedly helps it to quickly mobilize in emergencies. But the real key to success is a "culture of safety" in which people at all levels of government and society are committed to reducing risks and saving lives, according to a study by Oxfam, a charity that works in ravaged areas worldwide.

"The single most important thing about disaster response in Cuba is that people cooperate en masse," the study found.

As Hurricane Georges approached in 1998, a foreign aid worker living in Havana was astonished by the attention to preparedness, she told Oxfam.

"We had a steady stream of neighbors in and out of our apartment, counseling us to fill the bathtub with water, tape the windows, unplug all electrical items, get batteries or candles and put the car in the garage."

At the same time, a neighborhood representative from the Federation of Cuban Women checked on the "vulnerable population," including elderly people and single mothers who might need help evacuating. "Everyone, even the children, knew what to do," the foreigner noted.

Despite its poverty, Cuba has a high literacy rate - almost 96 percent. Instruction in disaster preparedness begins in grade school and continues through higher education and into the workplace. Under a 1976 law, every adult receives civil defense training.

Before a new hurricane season starts on June 1, authorities review and revise disaster plans based on the prior year's experience. In May, the entire country goes through a two-day hurricane drill, called Meteoro, that includes such practical measures as trimming tree limbs and checking for weaknesses in dams before a storm hits.

Most important, all those living in high-risk areas know beforehand where to take refuge - in sturdy homes on high ground or in group shelters, usually schools. Every shelter is stocked with food, water and medical supplies.

There are even plans for moving electrical appliances and other valuables.

"That is interesting because in countries where this is not the case, some people are very hesitant to evacuate because they are afraid of looting," Zupka says.

When a hurricane threatens, Cuba mobilizes under National Civil Defense, which coordinates preparedness from the federal level on down. Radio and TV broadcast continual updates on the storm from the country's meteorology institute.

"They invented the science of hurricane forecasting, and they have a rather robust technical capability," says Frank Lepore, public affairs manager for the U.S. National Hurricane Center. To reduce economic losses, cattle are moved to higher ground and crops are harvested if time permits. All forms of transportation - buses, helicopters, even horse carts - are pressed into service to get people to shelter.

One strength of Cuba's disaster preparedness system is that local and provincial officials also serve as the civil defense officials.

"It means that local groups are taking orders from someone familiar to them, not a stranger brought in for the duration of an emergency," the Oxfam study found. In the United States, by contrast, response to Katrina has been coordinated by federal officials, many of whom lack detailed knowledge of the Gulf Coast area and thus have been slow to act, critics charge.

Cuba revamped its civil defense system after a 1963 hurricane killed more than 1,000 people. Since then, disaster planning has been so finely honed that just 16 lives were lost between 1996 and 2002 despite six hurricanes, three of them major.

Cuba can offer lessons to the United States, especially in evacuation procedures, the Oxfam study says. Hurricane Katrina is thought to have killed thousands of residents who refused to leave or lacked the resources to do so.

The U.S. and Cuban governments do not have diplomatic relations, and President Fidel Castro typically rejects American offers of aid to protest the U.S. trade embargo on his nation. The most recent offer - and refusal - came after Hurricane Dennis struck Cuba in July and caused a high death toll by local standards - 16 people.

In Katrina's wake, Castro has offered to send 1,586 doctors to the nearby Gulf Coast, where many people reportedly have died for lack of medical attention.

"These doctors . . . could already be there offering their services," Castro told volunteers Sunday as reported by Cuban media. "Forty-eight hours have passed and we have not received any response to our reiterated offer."

As of Thursday, the State Department said only that "every offer is still being considered."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.