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CUBA
Cubans prepare for natural disasters
Patricia Olguin
7/13/2006
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Anticipating another busy hurricane season, islanders and authorities take precautions.

Cuba’s geographic location may grant it warm temperatures and sun throughout the year, but it also makes the island one of the most vulnerable to hurricanes in the Caribbean Sea. In November 1932, a late-season Category 5 hurricane swept across Cuba, devastating the fishing village of Santa Cruz del Sur, killing more than 2,000 people.

But there have been many technological advancements since then to help authorities predict and better prepare for large storms. However, the damage caused by 2005’s fatal hurricane season proves that work is yet to be done.

Last year marked a record hurricane season, with 27 tropical storms and 15 hurricanes. Category 5 hurricanes including Katrina, Rita and Wilma struck late in the season, leaving death and destruction in their paths.

But while they cannot stop nature, Cubans have been training for four decades to curb the destruction caused by hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Cubans know that if they do not take action, the financial loss will be devastating.

In July 2005, Hurricane Dennis killed 16 people in Cuba and caused US$1.4 billion in damages. In October, Hurricane Wilma slammed into the island, severely flooding Havana and causing US$700 million in damages, according to Cuba’s National Meteorological Institute — known by the Spanish acronym INSMET — and Civil Defense — far less damage than what the United States suffered following Hurricane Katrina in August.

United Nations experts said that Cuba’s ability to ward off greater human and material losses after big storms hit is owed to a joint effort by governmental research centers, the Civil Defense Institute and civil society organizations.

INSMET scientists collect data both day and night from their lab atop a hill in the Casa Blanca area of Havana.

The Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment collects climatic data from this center to better formulate damage prevention and storm readiness plans to protect the 11 million Cubans.

According to meteorologist Giselle Aguiar, at the start of what promises to be another active hurricane season, from June 1 to Nov. 30 the island is likely to be hit by 15 tropical storms, nine of which can strengthen into hurricanes.

A busy season ahead

This season, Cuba has a 75 percent chance of being hit by a hurricane, Aguiar said, far above the average 37 percent chance normally facing the island ahead of hurricane season.

"The predictions are based on fundamental sea and atmospheric conditions that measure the storm activity in the Atlantic basin," said Aguiar, adding that the data is then disclosed to the public.

The Civil Defense Institute, founded in 1966 as an arm of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, also works to minimize storms’ impacts on the island.

With onset of hurricane season, state agencies are buzzing to make sure that debris is cleared from roofs, yards and streets, as well as sewers and other underground waterways in case of flooding.

Backed by a national defense law, Cuban authorities formulate community-wide evacuation plans in the case of emergencies following the storms.

But Cubans themselves have their own plans in place to move by themselves to relatives, neighbors or friends living in safer places.

"We have surveyed the whole area, which tall trees can pose a threat to nearby residents," said Rosa Fernández Morales, a retired teacher from Havana. "In these cases, we prune them until they’re at a safe height, so that they don’t fall on some roof."

Cuba’s Civil Defense has taken on a contingency plan to minimize the damages of natural disasters, but the institution’s work also includes education and training programs for the public.

Schools and other secure buildings, constructed to withstand the forceful winds of these storms, are available as shelters for community residents.

The decrease in economic losses in Cuba over the last three decades is fundamentally owed to a multi-sector plan by several ministries and state agencies to protect livestock, farms, machinery, raw materials, food reserves, medicines, and one of the most important details, water sources and reserves.


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