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CUBA
Preparing for disasters
Lucila Horta
1/4/2008
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Prevention and mobilization efforts by citizens and authorities aim to minimize damages.

Hurricane Noel left huge material damages in its path at the end of October when it ripped through the eastern section of Cuba, but no lives were claimed, owing to preventative actions and disaster management put in practice over recent decades by citizens and authorities.

Losses brought on by Noel have escalated to US$500 million — principally in the forestry and agricultural sectors — and include the destruction of more than 1,000 houses, 13,000 kilometers (nearly 8,078 miles) of roads and highways, railways, bridges and sewers. More than 80,000 people were evacuated.

Marcio Porto, Cuban representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, highlighted the Cubans’ experience in managing disasters and proposed that other countries in the region take advantage to learn from their expertise.

Back in 1963 when hurricane Flora lashed Cuba’s eastern region, reaching a death toll of 1,126, modern modes of damage prevention still did not exist.
The current reservoirs — now protecting five provinces and permitting the storage of large volumes of water — greatly impedes the damage caused by floods when rains are excessive, while simultaneously preserving the precipitation.

Decreasing the number of fatalities
Similarly, the creation of dams and hydraulic structures, along with an ample protection system, has allowed that the different attacks by nature in the last four decades, although damaging, have not produced as many victims.

Cuba has an elevated risk of being impacted by a hurricane, with a probability of 75 percent.

The hurricane season in 2005 was one of the worst: 27 tropical storms and 15 hurricanes hit the Caribbean. In July 2005, hurricane Dennis, for example, caused 16 deaths and losses amounting to approximately US$1.4 billion in Cuba alone. In October, hurricane Wilma provoked severe floods in Havana and a material cost of more than US$700 million.

Confronting disasters is key in the work of the Civil Defense, founded in 1966 as a division of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. This division is responsible for seeing that the organizational measures to reduce potentially destructive disasters are fulfilled.

The National Defense Law outlines the procedure, placing all the municipal and provincial government presidents in charge of enacting protective measures in their respective territories. Everything is coordinated and executed by state, economic and social institutions.

“We have a new guide and methodology to determine risk; the network dedicated to monitoring extreme events as well as warning mechanisms, directions given to citizens, and informative tasks carried out by the media are all very high quality,” explained Gen. Ramón Pardo Guerra, head of the country’s civil defense, last June.

The institution has a transmissions room that makes broadcasts, same as the Meteorologist Institute, giving directions on what to do according to the type of alert or emergency.

This law and its practice get perfected as experience is obtained. There are annual weather preparedness exercises, including the participation of some 4 million people who prepare to face extreme climate situations, epidemics or any other emergency.

On each block there is someone designated to be in charge of evacuation, who knows how many children, elderly, handicapped and able citizens there are in his or her area, in such a way that they can also foresee any individual needs.

“If we have various children on the list we can predict that there will be a need for milk and if there are elderly, means to translate them are secured,” explained Josefina Ortiz, from the Havana Center, who says that she keeps her population registry current and revises it during the severe weather drills.

Thousands of shelters
There are around 3,000 shelters with adequate infrastructure, where people exposed to rising rivers or building collapse are transferred.

During Noel, serious overflows of people made the shelters insufficient in mountainous areas, but many citizens offered their homes as refuge for those affected.

Pardo Guerra pointed out “the people’s positive response, their discipline, their solidarity.”

Vigilance and control of chemical or other kinds of pollution lie within the responsibilities of civil defense, as well as the safeguarding of companies and their machines, primary sources, medicines and sources of potable water, among other goods. Similarly, there are agro-technological and phytosanitary norms so that damage to harvests are minimal and, once the emergency is finished, what has not been destroyed is recuperated.

During Noel’s assault, helicopters, amphibious vehicles and emergency constructions erected by army engineering brigades ensured that everyone had access to assistance and accelerated the recuperation process, building alternative roads and even permitting access to telephone and electronic technicians or workers who halted landslides on coffee plantations in order to save the harvest.


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