Cuba survives third major hurricane, this time Paloma

Aida Perez, 44 years old, was waiting out Hurricane Paloma with her two daughters in a dormitory at the University of Camaguey inland, along with 900 others from Santa Cruz del Sur, a small city on Cuba’s southern coast. Her house was probably gone, she told an AP reporter, “But what’s important is that we are alive.”

In fact, no Cuban died as the third major hurricane to hit the country in seven weeks struck Cuba’s southern coast Nov. 8. The category 4 storm moved northeasterly to exit as a tropical storm. In Santa Cruz del Sur, 9,889 houses were damaged and 1,353 destroyed. A 12-foot wave traveled one mile inland.

Reports on pre-storm preparations underscore the contribution of hard work. When Paloma hit Guayabal, 15 miles along the coast from Santa Cruz del Sur, all 2,032 inhabitants had already been evacuated. Over 48 hours, civil defense services moved 1.2 million people via buses and trains.

Flood gates were opened to allow reservoirs to receive rain, crews harvested plantains spared by the earlier hurricanes. Remaining hurricane debris was picked up. Food supplies in the open were put in storage. Students in residential schools were sent home. Road, rail and boat transport was suspended. Poultry and pig farms were secured. Tree branches were trimmed, storm drains cleared out. In Camaguey, over 403,000 farm animals, mainly cattle and poultry, were evacuated. Agricultural equipment was moved, over 600 windmills dismantled, and greenhouses taken down.

In its efforts to mobilize people to collective action, Cuba has prioritized education, particularly knowledge about storms and climate. Journalist Susan Hurlich, a veteran observer of Cuba’s civil defense capabilities, writes of Jose Rubiera, Cuba’s chief meteorologist, and a TV personality: “He’s considered a treasure in Cuba. People say that just hearing and seeing Rubiera, they feel more confident.” She adds: “He’s a professor, with an ability to explain the most complex weather phenomenon in ways that make it comprehensive  and educational  to all.”

Cuban President Raul Castro toured affected areas of Camaguey and Tunas a day after the storm. He told evacuated families, “Every preventative measure is justified because for us, the priority is to save human lives … “We are spending what we have and,” he added, “what we do not have,” referring to purchases of food and construction material. Total losses from three hurricanes came to $10 billion. Government leaders assured residents that homes would be rebuilt soon, and important belongings replaced.

Castro explained that increased frequency and severity of hurricanes stem from climate change and that Cuba must prepare to “coexist” with hurricanes. He cited a study indicating that for storm resistant houses, reinforced concrete roofs are essential. Industrial production of construction materials is being reoriented along these lines. Estimates earlier this year placed Cuba’s housing shortage at 600,000 units. Added to that deficit are half a million houses damaged or destroyed by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

Cuban First Vice-president Jose Ramon Machado told storm victims that because of long-term considerations of climate change, thought is being given to rebuilding settlements away from the coast.

Historical memory serves to prepare for hurricanes. Residents of Santa Cruz del Sur knew of the hurricane 76 years ago that killed 3,000 people in and around the city. Professor Ben Wisner of Oberlin College has explored other elements in Cuba’s ability to deal with hurricanes. Writing in the UK Guardian, the specialist in disaster response analyzed Cuba’s experience with Hurricane Michelle in 2001.

There are these other factors, he suggests: timely evacuation; effective communication systems; “neighborhood-based organizations capable of mobilizing labor;” “self-help and citizen-based social protection;” “trust between the authorities and the population;” and investments in “social capital,” scientific capabilities and prevention of imminent risks. Wisner asks if socialism is necessary, a question he leaves open, suggesting only that Cuba “has lessons for the rest of us.” He is silent on the U.S. blockade of information from Cuba.