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In evacuations, it's said, U.S. can learn from Cuba

The United States should turn to the lessons of Cuba and other Third World nations to help avoid a repeat of the New Orleans evacuation horrors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, according to an urban planning expert at the University at Buffalo.

"You wouldn't have seen that happen in Cuba," Henry Louis Taylor Jr. said of the much-criticized efforts to evacuate New Orleans' residents, especially those from low-income neighborhoods.

Taylor, a speaker at a UB-led conference Thursday on disaster issues at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government near the Capitol, said Cuba and other underdeveloped countries have built effective and cheap evacuation systems that rely chiefly on neighborhood groups to alert people and then get them to safety during disasters.

In the United States, he said, a top-down system is in place, which focuses efforts almost exclusively on police and fire agencies to handle disaster work -- a system that buckled in New Orleans, in part because of failed communications and distrust of government authority by many residents.

The head of UB's Center for Urban Studies, Taylor was in Havana in July researching a book when Hurricane Dennis slammed into Cuba. In two hours, he said, 100,000 people were evacuated from a susceptible area of the island -- thanks to a well-tested, government-run communications system that saw everyone from President Fidel Castro to local officials beaming specific evacuation details to residents, and the choreographed scrambling by neighborhood groups created decades ago after the Cuban revolution.

The result, he said, was that a poor nation that had to make do with Cold War-era emergency equipment was better prepared to evacuate its citizens than the United States was to evacuate the residents of New Orleans. It is a lesson communities such as Buffalo need to learn, he said, because high-tech gear and evacuation plans by city officials will not keep another New Orleans from happening unless officials embrace a new effort to include block groups and other community organizations -- as in Cuba today or in England during World War II.

Taylor said he hesitates to try to incorporate too many lessons from countries with vastly different government systems into how the United States should handle future man-made or natural disasters. But if there is one thing a highly developed country such as the United States can take from Third World nations such as Cuba, he said, it is to set up networks of neighborhood leaders, who are trusted in a community, to be directly involved with government officials when a disaster strikes.

While acknowledging that most Third World nations have little or no disaster planning, and often have to rely on the United Nations and others for support, Taylor said, there are exceptions such as Cuba.

The State University of New York gathering here featured a few dozen experts in various fields, from architecture and civil engineering to education, trying to begin a new coordinated research effort within SUNY involving homeland security and disaster planning and response.


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