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Natural Disasters and Planning: the Cuban State and Popular Participation


“Cuba’s disaster’s preparedness put us to shame”

– Richard Erstad,  American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).


In  the last 13 years Cuba was visited by 16 hurricanes and tropical storms. Here is a brief overview of some of the disasters.

November 4, 2001: Hurricane Michelle-
Saffir-Simpson Scale: 4
Impact on 45% of territory, 53% of pop affected, economic consequence: $1 billion USD.
Winds:    216km/hr.
Evacuated: 712,000. Public shelters: 270,000
Deaths: 5

September 20, 2002: Hurricane Isidore
Saffir-Simpson Scale: 2,
6 hours in Pinar del Rio province, lasted 12 hours inside Cuba
Winds: 160 km/hr
Gusts: 220 km/hr
Evacuated: 280,000 (and farm animals)

October 1, 2002: Hurricane Lili,
Saffir-Simpson Scale: 2, same course as Isidore.
Wind: 110 km/hr
Evacuated: 165,830 (86,000 shelters)

August 13, 2004: Hurricane Charley,
Saffir-Simpson Scale: 2.
Wind: 220 km/hr
Gusts of 280 km/hr
Evacuated: 149,000
Location: Havana  and Pinar del Rio  provinces. Stationery over Pinar del Rio for 6 hours.

September 12, 2004 – Hurricane Ivan,
Saffir-Simpson Scale 5,
Winds: 250 km/hr
Gusts:  310 km/hr.
Locations: Isla de la Juventud and Pinar del Rio.
Evacuated: 1, 500,000

July 5, 2005 Hurricane Dennis
Saffir Simpson Scale,
Winds: 240 km/hr
Evacuated: 600,000

How Do the Cubans Do It?

First, you plan. In the Cuban case the plan covers and is applied at the national, provincial, city/town/hamlet institutions – including the neighborhood.

Second, coordination (“conscientious and prepared network of volunteers, disaster responders, and public health officials who all work together”). You rely on the community organization you have; you depend on the very people who are to be evacuated. (People helping people within their respective neighborhoods).

Third, you educate the population about hurricanes and the Simpson-Safir scale. [Kids are even given math problems to determine the movement of hurricanes].

Fourth, you provide constant information and you relate the level of threat to the measures that have to be taken, depending on unfolding circumstances. And the mass media makes sure the population understands.

Fifth, you give natural disaster control the highest possible importance through the use of television, radio and community organizations – including churches, schools and police.

Sixth, you use national political leaders and specialists to communicate with the people and you put the very leaders of the government in the middle of the hurricane, to be with the people so that they should not be considered forgotten

Seventh, you practice the evacuation plans at times when there is no hurricane season.

Eighth, when the threat appears in the form of a disturbance in the east Caribbean, the television channels and radio stations in the country begin to follow the potential threat, from day to day. The whole country will function on the basis of the precautions, everything comes to a standstill until the hurricane threat ends

Ninth, you will get a population that knows, depending of its location and its force, what will be necessary to do, when and how. Moreover, Civil Defense begin to issue the proper press releases.

Tenth, evacuation occurs 24 hours, at least, prior to the hurricane striking the mainland.

Eleventh, the evacuation takes place according the specific national, regional or local plan. Everyone knows where to go to be picked up. Evacuation is done on the basis of residence.

Neighbors and people who might be in a particular area know to where they will be evacuated. The neighborhood physicians accompany the evacuees, so they will know what his/her patients’ medical history and needs. The reception points where the evacuees go will have, consequently, the medical supplies that are needed for the specific population

Twelfth, the points where the evacuees are taken are know beforehand and are set up with water, good, and cots to sleep. There are also toilet facilities. As a rule, however, people are evacuated to other people’s homes (mostly relatives and friends).

Thirteenth,  electric and gas services are cut off a few hours before the hurricane hits the area.

Fourteenth,  the state provides the necessary resources for an evacuation: experienced command and control organization, appropriately trained personnel who have well defined plans, pertinent and flowing information among those involved in the evacuation, transportation, food,  medical personnel and reception facilities. The people who are to be evacuated are, themselves, part of the resource used to evacuate the population.

In 2005 United Nations emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland noted that the Cuban program shows that, usually,  “You don’t get any headlines for prevention.” Thus, we seldom hear of Cuba’s unique and participatory preparedness. The New York Times has reported that “Cuba manages hurricanes well,” according to Russel L. Honoré, “who commanded military relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.”  He has noted  that the United States government “could be learning” from the Cubans. [1]

Yet, Cuba confronts serious problems when it comes to reconstruction after a hurricane. Avoiding the worse consequences of natural disaster depends on human capital and mass mobilization. Our analysis suggests that the Cuban disaster management system has a strong record when it comes to certain features of disaster preparedness and response, including natural hazard risk communication, scientific weather prediction and geological detection. Cuba also has a strong capacity for evacuation and other types of disaster natural prevention.

But as Benigno E. Aguirre and Joseph E Trainor  note the island also has limited financial resources that hinder a rapid recovery. Indeed, after the natural disasters the country faces many difficulties in reconstruction, and recovery. [2]  The US economic embargo/blockade does not help either.

Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.



[2] B. E. Aguirre and Joseph E. Trainor, Emergency Management in Cuba: Disasters Experienced, Lessons Learned, and Recommendations for the Future.

Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

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