When it comes to hurricane disaster response New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, during his recent six-day trip to Cuba, said the U.S. should learn from the socialist island. Nagin acknowledged Cuba does "a much better job than we do."
"One of the biggest weaknesses we had during Hurricane Katrina is it wasn't clear who was the top authority," Nagin told the Associated Press.
"The president and the governor were going back and forth," he added. "In Cuba you don't have that problem. The government says, ‘This is what we're doing, these are the resources we are going to deploy,' and it pretty much happens."
Nagin said Cuba's success arose from its ability to mobilize people and get them out of harms way. Storm evacuations are mandatory in Cuba but not in the United States.
Nagin and 15 U.S. city and state officials, including from police, fire and port agencies met with Cuban civil defense authorities and were given presentations about how the island mobilizes during disasters.
Nagin is the first U.S. mayor to make a diplomatic visit to Cuba in 50 years.
In 2005 Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, killing more than 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi and causing $4.1 billion in property damage. At the time Cuba assembled over 1500 doctors with a stockpile of medicine within 48 hours and offered to send them free of charge to help mitigate the disaster. The State Department under the Bush administration declined the offer.
The people of New Orleans are still recovering from Katrina, which smashed levees and completely destroyed most of the city leaving tens of thousands homeless.
Cuba deals with hurricanes nearly every year and when one hits, the country closes highways and enforces mandatory evacuations. Last year Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma all hit the island, causing more than $10 billion in damage killing seven.
"I think they do a much better job than we do on knowing their citizens at a very, very detailed level, block by block," notes Nagin.
In Cuba, Revolutionary Defense Committees organize communities at the neighborhood level, providing social services including health care and vaccinations. They also help with evacuations during hurricanes.
New Orleans officials said they advised Cuba to be prepared for a Katrina-like storm of disastrous proportions.
"We're trying to get them to think about the ultimate catastrophe, where 80 percent of Havana is damaged and they have no communications, no electricity and law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed," said Nagin.
Thinking that way is a difficult mental shift for the Cubans, notes Nagin. "They'll tell you, ‘We're prepared for everything,'" he said.
Nagin also met with the head of the Cuban Chamber of Commerce and spoke to tourism officials including those at the Port of Havana. Cuba was the top source of trade for the Port of New Orleans in the late 1950s.
Nagin is hoping the U.S. and Cuba can eventually become trading partners again. Since Cuba's 1959 revolution the U.S. has imposed a 47-year-old trade embargo on the socialist island that bars American tourists from visiting.
"They don't have to go to Vietnam for rice, and China for this and that. They could get it directly from us," said Nagin. "We grow it all."
Nagin was granted permission to visit Cuba by the State Department since Cuba has been recognized internationally as a leader in emergency management. In recent weeks a growing number of U.S. officials have been visiting Cuba including State Department official Bisa Williams and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
"I think there is a recognition that something better is going to happen between Cuba and the Unites States," said Nagin. "The question is how much?"
Nagin has lobbied for U.S. and Cuban authorities to allow special charter flights between New Orleans and Cuba. Charter flights are currently allowed between the two countries, but direct commercial flights are not.
Having flights to and from Havana would benefit New Orleans including a potential increase in tourist traffic, said Nagin. The mayor said since Katrina, the number of visitors to New Orleans has fallen from 10 million a year to 8 million and that revenues are significantly down.
Since taking office President Barack Obama has ended Bush-era sanctions to allow Cuban-Americans to visit their homeland whenever they want and send unlimited remittances back home.
Meanwhile bills are pending in the U.S. Congress that would end a general ban on Americans visiting the island. Obama has said he would like a more normal relationship with Cuba but has not set out a specific strategy for attaining that goal.
In July, both countries officially restarted a dialogue on migration issues, which had been suspended since 2003 and talks are also underway aimed at restarting a bilateral mail service that was cut off in 1963.
Critics welcome Obama's new policies however many are demanding an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which was recently extended for another year by the president. Critics of the embargo say it's a major roadblock in receiving badly needed medical supplies and other industrial resources that deter Cuba's economic development.
The United Nations General Assembly during the last week of October will once again take up the Cuban resolution calling for an end to the U.S. blockade.
Nagin began his trip to Cuba the day after Obama visited New Orleans. It was Obama's first trip to the jazzy city since taking office in 2008.
During a town hall there Obama said in days after "that terrible storm struck your shores, all the world bore witness to the fact that the damage from Katrina was not caused by just a disaster of nature but also by a breakdown of government, that government wasn't adequately prepared and we didn't appropriately respond."
Obama added, "We know how much work is left to be done. Whether you're driving through New Orleans, Biloxi or the southern part of Louisiana, it's clear how far we have to go before we can call this recovery a real success."
We are not going to forget about New Orleans, said Obama. "We are going to keep on working and we are not going to forget about the Gulf Coast. Together, we will rebuild this region, and we will rebuild it stronger than before," he said.