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Cuba provides lessons in disaster planning

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina has made Americans aware of the importance of disaster planning and management. The storm revealed the inadequacy of strategies to effectively communicate with and evacuate low-income residents during a catastrophe. Americans would be well advised to study systems of disaster preparedness in countries such as Cuba that have developed successful models to mobilize low-income groups.

I was in Havana doing fieldwork for a book when Hurricane Dennis roared across the island in July. Although it weakened to a Category 2 before striking Havana, it nevertheless gave me the opportunity to witness Cuba's approach to disaster preparedness. Effective communication, cooperation and efficient evacuation were the most impressive things I observed. Early on the morning of July 8, to reassure residents, Fidel Castro and a team of experts appeared on television and broadcast throughout the day to discuss the storm and the preparations taking place to safeguard the Cuban people.

The government, however, could not simply rely on television and radio. To communicate with the many people who do not have televisions, radios or telephones, they utilized a "word of mouth" method of communication. The success of this approach was made possible by Cuba's elaborate system of neighborhood-based organizations that are trained to mobilize people, help evacuate them and to pass on information at the street level.

I found the system capable of accurately delivering information in a timely and efficient manner. Everyone seemed to know where to go, where to get materials and supplies, what time the hurricane would hit and even when the electricity would be disconnected (it is cut off to avoid any injuries from electrocution).

Trust and cooperation were key factors. People believed the warnings put in place and cooperated with the authorities. When given directives, residents responded in a highly disciplined fashion.

When word finally came down that the hurricane was going to hit Havana on Friday evening, preparations intensified. In Centro Habana, windows were taped or boarded in about two hours. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, a neighborhood group, went to the homes of residents in the greatest danger and helped them move to evacuation centers.

Local residents told me that about 100,000 people were evacuated within two to three hours. This is quite a feat, given that few people own cars and that Cuba has a small fleet of mostly old vehicles, fuel shortages and poor roads.

These actions reflect a country with an effective risk communication and disaster preparation system, a population that knows and understands the threat of natural disasters and that can trust its leadership during times of crisis.

Comparisons between Cuba and the United States are difficult. Nonetheless, Cuba has developed an important model of disaster preparedness that U.S. scholars should carefully study. When it comes to saving lives, politics should be set aside and Americans should learn from best practice, no matter where it is found.

Henry Louis Taylor Jr. is a professor at the University at Buffalo.

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