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How does Cuba do it?

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 20, 2002

"Really Cuba's disaster preparedness capability puts us to shame."

—Richard Erstad

As Hurricane Isidore buffeted Cuba with strong winds and drenching rain Friday, the nation moved some 100,000 people out of harm's way in less than 24 hours.

Such a rapid, large-scale evacuation is unheard of in the U.S. -- even during these times when many are concerned about preparing for large-scale terrorist attacks.

It's not so much Cuba's communist government that makes for streamlined disaster preparation, explained Richard Erstad, director for Latin American/Caribbean programs at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

It's simply a conscientious and prepared network of volunteers, disaster responders, and public health officials who all work together, said Erstad.

"They really do have an excellent plan," he said, "they move people fast and they watch out for the elderly."

At its heart, Cuba's disaster preparedness plan seems to be based on people helping people more than the "thought control" stereotype of Cuban government many in the U.S. imagine.

Still, disaster preparation is inextricably tied to the communist government in Cuba, especially since the civil-defense-cum-disaster preparedness-program is based on a decades-old defense plan to mobilize the communist country against foreign military attacks.

As Hurricane Isidore approached Friday, pre-recorded TV announcements that some Americans would call cheesy exhorted "Protect your life!" The government-sponsored announcements warned people not to cross rivers or go fishing or swimming in the ocean during the storm.

Rather than letting localities decide which schools would be closed, a blanket evacuation was declared for thousands of students in government boarding schools. Similarly, all stores, government offices and banks in Havana simply closed. In Cuba, it's not up to the management.

"Cuba does have a peculiar system and way of operating," admitted Erstad.

Cuba fine-tuned its civil defense plan during the Reagan years. "When Reagan was rattling swords at Cuba, the civil defense plan there was at its peak," said Erstad.

Since then the military has downsized, but what's left in the face natural disasters is still a highly organized evacuation plan that works.

When Hurricane Michelle -- a highly dangerous Category 4 storm capable of causing extreme damage -- hit Cuba in November 2001, only one person died.

"That kind of hurricane would mean thousands of deaths for a place like Haiti," said Ernstad.

In the wake of Hurricane Michelle, Cuba bought food from the U.S., and the country also put out appeals for specific medicines.

Michelle caused $1.8 billion in damage to tens of thousands of homes, crops, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure.

On Friday, Hurricane Isidore was moving slowly toward the western end of Cuba's main island. Isidore is the second hurricane of the Atlantic season.

Cuba's western half could see as much as 30 inches of rain over the weekend, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Disaster responders have agreed there's little doubt Hurricane Isidore will cause crop damage in Cuba.

Housing could suffer as well, said Ernstad.

During the 1960s, when another devastating hurricane struck Cuba, the AFSC was the only U.S.-based group that sent aid.

Today, however, many faith-based groups -- including Church World Service, Catholic Relief Services, and many others -- respond to needs in Cuba.

As the U.S. follows the news of 100,000 Cubans moving systematically out of harm's way, are there lessons to be learned?

"Really Cuba's disaster preparedness capability puts us to shame," said Ernstad, in terms of the lives it saves and its speedy evacuations.

On the other hand, it's democracy at work in the U.S. as states and localities -- not the national government -- decide who is evacuated, and when.

That's not likely to change, concluded Ernstad. "I don't think this country is ready for such a plan."

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