Three days before Hurricane Ivan grazed Cuba, U.S. journalist Karen Wald heard from a Cuban friend: “Everything is crazy with Ivan coming. This is a war situation here. … People are really scared.”

Cuba was still in the midst of recovery efforts from Hurricane Charley, which struck the island on Aug. 13, when “Ivan the Terrible” veered off its projected course and indirectly hit Cuba on Sept. 13. That same day, President Fidel Castro traveled to Pinar del Rio, the region most affected, to give personal leadership to the recovery efforts.

The nation’s preparations for dealing with Ivan are worth examining, especially in comparison with those of other Caribbean nations. Two roundtable discussions, broadcast over Cuban television on Sept. 9-10, point to Cuba’s high level of organization, popular mobilization, and public education in the face of adversity. The content of the broadcasts were described by Havana-based Canadian journalist Susan Hurlich.

After a recap of the history and meteorology of hurricanes by weather service head Jose Rubiera, civil defense official Col. Macareno Veliz described an elaborate communications set-up between civil defense planners and the neighborhood-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution to ensure coordinated safety measures.

Veliz reported that 400,000 health workers would be available for urgent care, plus 903 operating rooms ready to receive injured victims. Hospital patients were moved to safer locations.

Civil defense authorities, he said, had divided the island into red and yellow zones to indicate levels of urgency. By Sept. 11, 650,000 people from “full-alert” provinces in the country’s western areas had been evacuated; another 650,000 were relocated the next day. Half a million livestock and poultry were moved, too.

A water-resources official outlined measures already taken to protect water supplies and provide drinking water after the storm.

Officials returned again and again to the importance of solidarity — neighbors helping neighbors. Moderator Randy Alonso noted that of 66,700 people evacuated in Havana during Hurricane Charley, some 38,000 moved into the homes of family, friends or neighbors. The same phenomenon happened with Ivan: 80 percent of the million-plus people evacuated prior to Hurricane Ivan took refuge with other families.

As Ivan approached, Radio Reloj, Cuba’s all-news radio station, broadcast around-the-clock hurricane updates starting Sept. 9. On Sept. 12, radio and television focused exclusively on storm preparations.

Prior to Hurricane Charley, on July 9, President Fidel Castro urged calm and discipline in the face of the hurricane season. “The number one thing is to protect lives,” he said. “We’ll work out the rest. It may take time but we will recover. … Everything you can rebuild, except for a life. … We shall measure the effectiveness of our preparation,” he said, “through the amount of lives that are saved.”

Preparations for Hurricane Ivan elsewhere in the Caribbean were a mix of “panic and Caribbean-style resignation,” according to the London Telegraph. Jamaican Prime Minister D.J. Patterson urged his people to “remain calm and act responsibly.” In Kingston, people were reluctant to leave home, fearing looting. Officials begged them to go to public shelters, although some of these were described as unsafe. Food and emergency materials were apparently in short supply.

Jamaican officials called off-duty correctional officers back to work to deal with the scenario of prisoners escaping from damaged jails, as had happened a day or two before in Grenada.

Unlike other Caribbean nations, Cuba has not received hurricane assistance through international lending institutions, nor is it getting aid from UNICEF, which issued an emergency relief appeal for other affected countries.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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