When the enemy is nature itself

Humans can not prevent these events, but they can prepare to mitigate their effects. But this can only be achieved if a disaster defense system that permits the rapid implementation of measures to protect the lives of people and property is created.

Today, many of the poorest and least developed nations are surprised by extreme weather events and their brutal repercussions, with huge numbers of fatalities. It is impossible to forget the huge earthquake of Haiti in 2010.

Cuba experienced a poignant situation in 1963, when the island was hit by Hurricane Flora, a rare phenomenon which took an erratic path over four days, penetrating along the coast of Guantánamo, the most eastern province of Cuba, on October 3, before entering and leaving different parts of the east of the island. The hurricane destroyed roads and bridges, while the murky waters of flooded rivers killed more than a thousand people and left more than a hundred thousand without homes and other property.

Flora was the second largest natural disaster in Cuba, after the brutal hurricane of November 1932, in Santa Cruz del Sur, Camagüey, which caused some 3,500 deaths, primarily due to the storm surge or tidal wave that destroyed the town.

Also in this century, we can’t fail to mention the passage of three consecutive hurricanes in 2008: Gustav, Ike and Paloma.

According to experts, these have been the most devastating in the history of these meteorological events in the country.

BLOCKING THE WAY

As is well known, Cuba is geographically situated along a path which sees frequent tropical storms which, in many cases, become powerful hurricanes. As such, the island has accumulated extensive experience in the fight against this enemy.

The National Civil Defense, the institution responsible for disaster protection plans, has worked to correct errors, organize contingency plans to detail, and move the population to safe areas, protecting their lives and property, over more than 40 years.

The institution has structured a defense system against disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, harmful leaks, fires, floods, storm surges and other possible events. This includes an early warning system, which entails ensuring the correct behavior and discipline of citizens in following instructions, preparing for evacuation, and other important security measures which constitute the essential elements to preserving the greatest treasure of the country, its people.

Costal flooding has recently affected Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. Photo: Arelys Echevarria Rodriguez. Photo: Echevarría , Arelys María

Hence, every year, at the beginning of the hurricane season, a well thought out exercise is undertaken to test the knowledge of those responsible for putting the established mechanisms into gear, as well as the population in areas at risk; including training on what to do, how to behave, where to evacuate to; who is responsible for ensuring shelters are set up and secure, those people with solid and safe housing who are willing to collaborate, what the evacuated should take with them; and ensuring the entire population at risk is aware of the early warning system and the importance of following the instructions issued.

Statistics show that thanks to the institution acting as a single mechanism across different levels in the event of threats, the country has seen low numbers of casualties and accumulated expertise recognized by international bodies in the field.

To achieve such results, training which is as close to a real situation as possible is undertaken, based on the premise that protecting human life comes first and foremost in all Civil Defense plans. As such, the institution’s General Staff conduct the annual “Meteor Exercise” to practice and strengthen the country’s disaster preparation, conscious of the fact that the preventive measures and organizational work undertaken to mitigate disasters can always been made more effective.

Exercises undertaken have seen some 3 million people evacuated to safe places, many of them with their personal possessions, of which, nearly half a million were sheltered in evacuation centers, while the rest received solidarity shelter from friends and neighbors.

Cuba’s Civil Defense continues to work to perfect its essential purpose: prevention.

The most lethal impacts of these phenomena generally surround housing: hundreds of thousands of homes are damaged, many with partial or total loss of roofing and other essential structures.

Official reports indicate that the damages to housing can be described as the most complicated problem, not only because those which are destroyed leave hundreds of thousands of people homeless for a time, while further hundreds of thousands require repairs, but because such construction requires huge amounts of financial investment and resources, as well as years of intense work.

Thousands of tons of stored food are also damaged when disaster strikes. The electric service is affected across almost the entire country, which is left in the dark due to the strong winds and heavy rains and the protective measures implemented to prevent further damage. It could be said that the country is left virtually in ruins, with a deteriorated economy, but despite the fact that houses, crops, power systems and industrial structures are practically destroyed, life goes on and the country can not reverse any of its achievements.

In the immediate term, what follows after any disaster is the hard work of recovery.

The key aspect of any disaster defense system is to prepare in every way possible. It is not easy to recover after a disaster of great magnitude, but when the recovery is planned, warnings are timely, better protected sites are selected for evacuation and the population itself is organized and confident in the protection offered, any panic and disorder that may hinder prevention and subsequent recovery efforts can be avoided.

PREVENTION AND EARLY WARNINGS – THE KEY

Agencies directly linked to the preparation of training exercises, the country’s leadership, the Defense Councils of local governments, social and economic institutions, schools, hotels and hospitals nationwide implement the measures contained within the Civil Defense plans in their respective territories, in order to strengthen the emergency response capacity in the face of possible high magnitude earthquakes, tsunamis and other extreme disaster situations.

Increased seismic activity recorded in the eastern region of the island has led to recent exercises and training to address situations caused by such events.

For years, the Civil Defense has provided training to the population, organized appropriate responses, detected weaknesses in the system across various territories and implemented the measures foreseen in contingency plans.

The Cuban people are psychologically prepared for hurricanes, having acquired a certain collective culture in the face of such events. Most of the population is clear that due to the island’s geographic position, the danger of being hit by a hurricane is always present. This has led to the accumulation of certain expertise in preparing for such events, which has been recognized by international organizations.

Over time, the island has experienced many highly dangerous events, with the inherent aftermath of flooding, which have demonstrated the extensive solidarity and discipline of men and women who in one way or another are affected.

For us Cubans, frequently these attitudes are so common that often we fail to appreciate them in normal situations. At times we reflect on the loss of certain essential values in society, which formed part of traditions inherited from our grandparents, but it is precisely during the most difficult moments, of fear and uncertainty, that we realize that this tradition of support and solidarity continues and flourishes.

In recent weeks, the island has experienced unusual weather patterns: severe thunderstorms with heavy rain, coastal flooding as a result of the El Niño climate cycle, and perceptible tremors in the eastern provinces over several days, particularly in Santiago de Cuba, where in various areas families have had to leave their houses and gather in parks and squares until the tremors, apparently due to the earth’s crust adjusting, cease.

As I watched some footage of the difficult times that the Santiago population has been living through recently, with the fear that an earthquake of major proportions could strike, I heard that one member of the community had run back into his house to make coffee for all his neighbors, a drink that Cubans believe helps to get through the bad times.

Fortunately, the occurrence of severe earthquakes is not common in the country, but this seismic activity has alerted authorities to the need to be able to reduce possible damages resulting from an extreme event of this type.

Cuba has a National Center for Seismological Research (CENAIS), a network of several stations, which continuously monitor seismic activity, while the Institute of Meteorology has over 60 weather stations and eight radars monitoring weather patterns across the island.

The installation of emergency medical units and their operational capacity is another focus, with experiences accumulated by Cuban medical personnel working in various countries, such as the Henry Reeve Contingent specializing in natural disasters and epidemics.

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