Hurricane Wilma hit Cuba from all sides. On Oct. 17, on its way west to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the hurricane dropped torrents of rain on eastern Cuba, and five days later, en route to Florida, Wilma engulfed Havana and flooded low-lying farm areas along Cuba’s northwest coast.

Twenty-foot waves breached the Malecon sea wall in Havana, sending waist-high surges along streets deep into the city. A 59-year-old woman told a reporter, “In all the 50 years that I have lived here, I’ve never seen anything like it. The sea broke everything.”

For Cubans, the flooding was reminiscent of the “Storm of the Century” in March 1993. Hurricane Wilma was indeed a big storm, but no one died.

That’s the plan, according to Cuba-based journalist Susan Hurlich. “You can always build a bridge again, a house again, an oil derrick again,” she writes in an e-mail message. “But what you can’t build anew is one lost life, one missing person.”

According to official figures, 607,542 people were evacuated, 70,300 to shelters and 537,200 to homes of families and neighbors. 413,850 animals were moved — 111,000 cattle, 45,880 pigs, 23,550 sheep and goats, and over 200,000 poultry. Marine authorities transported 554 fishing boats to protected areas.

The Civil Defense Authority, augmented by 103,000 citizen volunteers, set up 755 catering facilities and 1,325 temporary shelters, half of them in schools, where medical services and food were available. All Havana municipalities received extra food supplies. Hospitals readied 600 beds for emergencies and added extra supplies of oxygen and blood. To prevent fires, authorities turned off electrical power as soon as winds reached 50 mph.

By Oct. 24, children in Havana and Pinar del Rio had returned to school, and crews were cleaning up debris and repairing buildings, roadways and Havana’s Malecon. Farmers in Pinar del Rio were picking up 2,600 tons of grapefruit from the ground, and replanting short-cycle crops to keep up markets supplies. Electricity had returned to 90 percent of Havana, and a day later, to 85 percent of Pinar del Rio.

Recent hurricanes and three weeks of steady rain have replenished reservoirs in Central and Eastern Cuba. Cuba’s East had been afflicted by one of the most severe droughts in the nation’s history.

While Cuba was defending against hurricane Wilma, over 700 Cuban doctors were providing medical care in Guatemala where Hurricane Stan caused the deaths of 3,000 people. And 200 Cuban doctors were in Pakistan taking part in earthquake relief efforts there. Cuba offered to send doctors to Mexico to support that country’s recovery efforts after Hurricane Wilma.

All but 200 of the doctors in Guatemala are part of Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade, formed two months ago to provide emergency medical care in the United States following Hurricane Katrina. Washington never responded to the Cuban offer of 1,500 fully equipped doctors. Women make up more than half of the brigade members. Henry Reeve came to Cuba from the United States to join the nation’s liberation struggle in 1868.

Instead of its usual token $50,000 offered for hurricane relief, this time the U.S. government has offered to provide Cuba with real assistance, and Havana is allowing a visit by three U.S. aid specialists to assess Cuba’s needs. Fidel Castro said on television, “Cuba has not solicited international aid,” but believes that countries should “provide each other with mutual assistance in situations of disaster.”

Jose Rubiera is Cuba’s chief meteorologist, and he’s a hero there. In the build-up to hurricanes, he’s on national television, providing facts, explaining, and predicting. Maritza Socarras, a Havana housewife, was quoted in a news report: “Everybody likes the man. They trust him. People will say: ‘If Rubiera said it, it’s got to be true.’”

In a recent interview, Rubiera pointed out that less than 40 people have died in 14 major hurricanes over 20 years. “There’s no improvisation here. Cuba has a plan to face hurricanes. The United States doesn’t. … It is vital that everyone be well informed, without sensationalism. We do not turn hurricanes into a public spectacle.”

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