As reported today by DemocracyNow
One of the Caribbean islands hardest hit by Hurricane Irma was Cuba, where 10 people died. Irma hit Cuba’s northern coast as a Category 5 storm. It was the deadliest hurricane in Cuba since 2005, when 16 people died in Hurricane Dennis. Cuba has long been viewed as a world leader in hurricane preparedness and recovery. According to the Center for International Policy, a person is 15 times as likely to be killed by a hurricane in the United States as in Cuba. Meanwhile, Cuba has already sent more than 750 health workers to Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Saint Lucia, the Bahamas, Dominica and Haiti.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what happened in Cuba, first? And then we’ll talk about their record in hurricane preparedness and what we can learn from them.
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, as you just mentioned, the hurricane made landing on the north coast, down towards the east, and then skirted the coast all the way up close to Havana, did not reach Havana, and then headed north. So, the brunt of it was felt across the island, but the worst part was down around the area of Camagüey and other towns down in that area. And they were really, truly, very, very badly—very badly hurt. Havana had waves coming up over the sea wall, apparently that reached something like 32 feet, and horrific flooding that went in five or seven blocks. People were up to their shoulders in some areas in water. So it was huge amounts of flooding. However, 10 people died, as you mentioned, which is an enormous number of people for Cuba because of the tremendous preparation that they do. Normally, people do not die in hurricanes in Cuba, or if they do, they’re just a very, very small number.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, when you say that normally very few people die in hurricanes in Cuba, why is that, given the fact that Cuba is not a wealthy country? It’s had all kinds of economic problems. What is it about the government’s preparedness that is so distinct from what happens in the rest of the Caribbean or even in the United States?
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Well, it is distinct, because they have an ingrained culture of prevention and preparedness that is really quite unique, and it is very rigorously followed. And children learn from a very, very early age that disasters will happen. Their lessons are included throughout all their years growing up. And they really expect these things to happen, and they know what to do when they do happen. Cuba has been hit with hurricanes so many times, hurricanes—not only hurricanes, but major tropical storms, which bring huge amounts of flooding and sea surge, and they have to be ready for it. So they are ready. And they save enormous numbers of lives by massive evacuations. I think this time they evacuated a million people. And even though the infrastructure is poor and many of the houses are very poor, their focus is on saving lives.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, also, you studied their preparedness. Could you talk about the impact of things like neighborhood mapping that they do, of who exactly lives in what neighborhood, and the role that the neighborhood groups, the Committees for Defense of the Revolution, play in disasters like this?
ELIZABETH NEWHOUSE: Yes. Well, they have all the neighborhoods mapped. They know exactly who lives where. They know who the vulnerable people are, and they know who the elderly people are and where they live. And a couple of days before the hurricane hits, they evacuate them all. They start with those people. Pregnant women get put in hospitals. People with infirmities get also put in hospitals. Others get taken to either shelters or with family or friends who are living in more secure houses. But everybody in Cuba knows what they’re going to do if a hurricane hits. Everybody has a plan, whether it’s to go to a family or friend, or whether it’s to go to a shelter. So there’s no sort of haphazard organizing at the last minute. It’s very, very well thought out. The civil defense system controls it all. The president of the civil defense is the president of the country—or the head of the civil defense. And it’s very tightly, tightly organized, from the bottom up and from the top down.
It’s really a very impressive thing to see, and the results are really quite astounding, even though the material damage is always horrific. And, I mean, I think they’re still—they’re still trying to find ways to house people who were displaced in the last hurricane. So, you know, what they’re going to do this time, I don’t know.