As dead bodies still floated in flooded New Orleans and masses of hungry, thirsty survivors, mostly poor and Black, were deposited at far-off sports arenas, Cuba’s National Assembly issued a declaration of solidarity Sept. 1 and observed a moment of silence for Katrina’s victims. The Cuban government has offered to send 1,100 fully equipped doctors to the U.S. to provide them care.

Cuban spokespersons passed no judgment on U.S. disaster preparation. But Cuba’s own record of human survival during hurricanes provides eloquent testimony that there is another way.

Six hurricanes striking Cuba from 1996 to 2002 killed 16 people. Hurricane Georges (1998) killed 597 persons elsewhere, only four in Cuba. Michelle (2001), Cuba’s worst storm in almost 60 years, killed five. Ivan (2004) killed thousands in the Caribbean area, mainly in Haiti — but none in Cuba. In Charley (2004), the worst hurricane for Havana Province since 1915, four people died. This year, Hurricane Dennis unexpectedly caused at least 10 deaths.

UN disaster relief expert Salvano Briceno said last year, “Cuba must serve as an example.”

“The Cuban model,” he said, “could easily be applied to other countries.”

Cuban President Fidel Castro addressed the Cuban people on national television prior to Hurricane Charley last summer. “The number one thing is to protect lives,” he said. “You can rebuild everything, except for a life.”

“We shall measure the effectiveness of our preparation through the number of lives that are saved,” Castro said.

A 2004 Oxfam America report, “Cuba — Weathering the Storm” (www.oxfamamerica.org/cuba), written by Martha Thompson and Izaskun Gaviria, attributed Cuba’s success to “its centralized government” and “community mobilization around preparedness.”

“Cuba’s socialist government has emphasized social and economic development, prioritizing an equal distribution of resources, universal access to social services, and a narrower urban-rural development gap,” Oxfam said. Other “significant and proven risk-reduction measures” in Cuba include policies to reduce social and economic disparities and investment in human development, yielding a “wealth of trained and available professionals.”

Cuba’s civil defense system features tested communication and command networks connecting the nation’s civil defense, armed forces and political leadership. The main preparedness tool, however, is community organization promoted by municipal assemblies and leaders of local organizations.

“Community risk mapping” identifies vulnerable persons. Communities hold hurricane exercises each year incorporating the lessons of previous storms.

Disaster preparedness is taught in schools and workplaces. A civil defense official in Cienfuegos said, “Any child in school can give you an explanation, how you prepare, what you do. Everyone was clearly aware of what measures and procedures they needed to follow in case of a hurricane.” The Oxfam reports notes, “The Cuban population has clearly developed a ‘culture of safety.’”

Cuban television provides exhaustive detail on approaching storms, days in advance. Family doctors make certain that schools and shelters slated to house evacuees are staffed by full health teams and stocked with medical supplies and food. Hospital patients are moved to safe locations, with medicines and care plans.

The numbers of those evacuated are staggering. For example, 1.5 million were moved out of Ivan’s way. Civil defense forces evacuated 159,000 animals, along with 215,532 people, from Cuba’s southwest coast prior to Hurricane Charlie. People move into homes of family, friends and strangers, and into schools.

The mobilization continues into the post-hurricane recovery period. Prefabricated houses are put up, people are fed and salaries are maintained.

In a socialist nation, people come first — all the people. A better world is not possible without tools. The tools that enable Cuba to save lives and preserve human dignity during hurricanes are socialist values and organization.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a pediatrician in rural Maine.

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