Before the hurricane

Cuba is a world leader in hurricane preparedness and recovery. There is much other states can learn from this island nation.

Branko Marcetic

ALONG with the horrifying images of floating corpses, devastating flooding and people trapped on makeshift islands, another indelible image has emerged from the Hurricane Harvey catastrophe. In the midst of disaster, locals began sharing pictures of hundreds of fire ants forming chain-linked rafts to float on water and protect their queen, eggs and young.

This striking display of insect solidarity in the face of calamity seemed to contrast with the human response to Harvey, which, however valiant, appeared to remind us of the apparent futility of human resistance in the face of acts of God.

But what if I told you there was a country that has survived its last 17 hurricanes with only 35 deaths? What if that country demonstrated exactly the kind of society-wide solidarity we envy the fire ants for? And what if that country had a GDP that was a fraction of the United States'?

There is such a country: Cuba.

While 2016's Hurricane Matthew killed 44 people in the United States, it killed no one in Cuba, despite leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Ditto for Hurricane Katrina, which left as many as 1,800 people dead in the US. In 2008, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike pummelled Cuba at the peak of their intensity, slaying seven. But in the US, 30 people perished, even though the storm had lost much of its strength. Hurricane Isabel killed more Americans in 2003 than six major hurricanes killed Cubans between 1996 and 2002.

The same pattern holds true for every hurricane that's struck the two countries. It's no wonder then that organisations like the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the United Nations have repeatedly cited Cuba as a global model for risk reduction (see box).

So how does Cuba do it? There's no great secret. After several particularly deadly 20th-century hurricanes, the country simply put in place a comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck national programme of disaster preparation, evacuation, relief and recovery that involves virtually every citizen, from the national to the local levels.

Rather than a side issue, forgotten until the next time disaster strikes, hurricane preparation and recovery in Cuba are treated as the life-and-death matters that they are. And while some might argue that the Cuban model is only possible because it's a one-party state, there's little about its hurricane programme that rests on authoritarianism.

Here are four key facets of the Cuban programme that set it apart.

1. Cuba is always preparing for the next hurricane.

Cuba quite rightly assumes that another major hurricane is always right around the corner. It therefore has a variety of government entities devoted to predicting and bracing for the next hurricane. Its 68 weather stations track storms, while the National Civil Defence has an early warning system, emergency stockpiles and rescue teams.

This by itself does not set Cuba far apart from countries like the United States. But as a 2009 delegation to Cuba from Galveston, Texas, found, 'preparation in Cuba is a year-round event'. All adults are mandated by law to go through a civilian defence training programme that teaches them how to help during an evacuation. Every year since 1986, each and every citizen, regardless of age, has taken part in a two-day hurricane drill known as the Ejercicio Meteoro, in which they simulate an evacuation. Schools have incorporated preparedness into the curriculum at all ages.

In addition, emergency plans at the national, provincial, municipal and local levels are devised and updated annually. As part of this plan, every Cuban is designated a location for refuge well in advance of any storm.

Weather information, meanwhile, is broadcast continually on state-run media, every six hours, increasing in frequency to every three hours if storms are on their way, while alerts are sounded 72 hours before a hurricane hits. In other words, the state of the weather is never far from Cubans' minds.

2. Everyone is mobilised.

A major reason for the Cuban model's success, particularly in a country with comparatively few resources, is its philosophy of total mobilisation. The hurricane response may be directed from the top down, but it's carried out by ordinary Cubans in their local communities, building on the regular training they receive.

As Oxfam America found in a 2004 study, 'the single most important thing about disaster response in Cuba is that people cooperate en masse'. Provincial and municipal leaders are made Civil Defence leaders and put in charge of their particular areas, combining a centralised decision-making process with a decentralised implementation. They call meetings, review emergency plans, assign transportation and equipment, delegate tasks and duties, and more.

In Cuba, everyone has a role. Doctors, school directors, members of mass organisations and others review emergency plans and check evacuation procedures and supplies. 'Everyone, even the children, knew what to do,' observed one foreign aid worker in 1996, noting how everyone in an apartment building would get to work taping up windows, stockpiling rations, cooking food and advising neighbours on how to safeguard their property. It's part of what the UN-Habitat agency has called a culture of safety.

Community members work to move animals to higher ground, rescue those who are stranded, and hurricane-proof homes. If a family home is deemed safe and not at risk for flooding, they take in neighbours. Otherwise, citizens are assigned to a neighbour or family member's house, or, failing that, to a government-run group shelter (which can be anything from a school to a church).

To get people there, local communities draw on whatever transportation they have on hand, from cars and trucks to boats and horse carts. Citizens are even allowed to bring pets, with veterinarians stationed at evacuation centres ready to tend to them. Municipal bakeries pitch in by providing the shelters with food.

This continues into the recovery phase. Local communities form teams to assess the damage and start cleaning. Citizens work together to clean up and rebuild, collecting clothing and materials for the community. Some continue to live with friends and family or in shelters until it's safe to go back.

Such solidarity is not somehow unique to Cuba. As scenes out of Texas and other disaster-stricken states in the US over the years have shown, ordinary Americans are more than ready to sacrifice to help their neighbours. But such energies are often expended after the fact, when it's too late, not in advance, as in Cuba.

3. Vulnerable communities are taken care of.

The damage wrought by natural disasters is always lopsided. In the United States, wealth inequality makes this stratification especially acute, but a whole host of other factors - from geography to personal health - also contribute to disparities.

Cuba goes out of its way to identify which of its citizens, areas and properties are most vulnerable to disaster, at both the macro and micro levels. Municipalities compile detailed biographical information on all citizens annually, from their age to any special services they might require.

Meanwhile, community members such as doctors or representatives of mass organisations assess their own neighbourhoods. One explained to Oxfam that she knew the people who lived in the neighbourhood and their particular needs, from an elderly woman in a wheelchair to a pregnant woman in need of assistance.

As a hurricane approaches, these local representatives make sure vulnerable people are okay, while community doctors check on patients to see if they need to go to hospital as a precaution.

4. The protection of personal property is guaranteed, among a host of other unique measures.

One of the most unique elements of the Cuban model is the government's effort to protect ordinary Cubans' personal property. This is important for financial and sentimental reasons, but also to convince people to follow evacuation orders.

Government officials, police and the military are sent in to move furniture and other belongings to higher ground or somewhere else safe. Some provinces let residents put their valuables in boxes and send them away to be stored elsewhere. To give citizens added peace of mind, the government guarantees the replacement of all destroyed property, despite the country's meagre resources.

This is just one of a number of distinct measures the Cuban government takes during a hurricane. Print and broadcast media give detailed instructions for how to secure homes and where to go. Electricity and cooking gas mains are shut down when the wind reaches a certain speed, preventing deaths from electrocution or gas explosions. Harvesting is accelerated in advance of an event, while trees near phone and electrical wires are cleared.

And instead of closing hospitals and other vital services, as is often done in the US, Cuba keeps them open and secures them, to provide medical care and more to its beleaguered people. Such medical help for victims continues long after the disaster is over, a reflection of the government's insistence that healthcare is a human right.

We can do better

All of this stands in stark contrast to the United States.

The US' disaster response is planned and carried out with little to no citizen engagement. Municipalities don't have to respond to a centralised body concerning evacuation procedures, but instead make their own decisions, which they can't enforce. There's no mandatory emergency drill or cooperation that citizens must take part in. Vulnerable communities are not mapped out, and the military's resources are directed towards fighting far-off wars instead of helping communities back home.

True, the United States doesn't have a state-run media that can broadcast information in an emergency. Yet privately run media are known to collaborate with the US government to transmit information in times of emergency, as well as cut into regular programming to deliver urgent messages from the president. It's difficult to believe they would refuse to assist the government when natural disaster strikes.

Some might also point out that the United States can't force people to evacuate, a major cause of death as residents ignore evacuation warnings. But as the Galveston delegation determined, 'an informed populace, more keenly involved and aware of the risk a natural disaster poses, will be more likely to evacuate voluntarily'. In other words, making ordinary people part of the response effort, delegating responsibilities to them and educating them about the dangers of natural disasters means they're more likely to take such threats seriously - as does guaranteeing the safety of their personal property.

The Cuban model is not some kind of outlier that is the outgrowth of its authoritarian political system. It's a product of political will. The government decided they would prioritise the lives of the Cuban people, including the most vulnerable, and built a hurricane response programme around that.

Imagine what the United States, a nation with more than 100 times Cuba's wealth and resources, could do if its politicians made the same decision.                            

Branko Marcetic is an editorial assistant at Jacobin, from whose website ( this article is reproduced. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

UN body lauds Cuban hurricane risk management

Back in 2004, as Hurricane Ivan stormed across the Caribbean, the United Nations stated that Cuba was a model in hurricane risk management in developing countries. 'The Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions and even in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their population as well as Cuba does,' explained Salvano Briceno, director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) secretariat in Geneva, the UN body that focuses on disaster reduction.

Cuba presents an example of how the vulnerability of people can effectively be reduced with low-cost measures - and strong determination. Authorities are determined to implement disaster reduction policies in Cuba, said Briceno. 'It is part of their development planning and their culture, which play a key role in saving lives and livelihoods. This illustrates the importance of a strong political will ... Leaders of countries around the world have at their disposal the knowledge needed to reduce risk and vulnerability to hazards. Even poor countries are not entirely without options to mitigate or prevent the consequences of hazards. What is often lacking are concrete programmes of action and the political will to implement policies and measures.'                                      

Source: 'Cuba: A model in hurricane risk management', ISDR press release, September 2004

*Third World Resurgence No. 322/323, Jun/July 2017, pp 42-44