Cuba’s Civil Defense War Against Hurricanes

Fernando Ravsberg*

All equipment and machinery in the region is at the service of the Cuban Civil Defense authority for the recovery after Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Perhaps one of the greatest and most unsung achievements of the Cuban Revolution has been the creation of a civil defense system that can minimize the loss of life from natural disasters – particularly hurricanes, which hit the island almost every year.

Hurricane Sandy just left Cuba after causing 11 deaths. These are less than those caused in other countries, but Cubans are nevertheless shocked by the news. This is understandable since it’s rare for there to be more than three hurricane-related deaths on the island per year.

To prevent such human death tolls, the nationally structured Civil Defense system was created. Possessing enormous power, it is able to command all resources that exist in affected areas and may also request support from the rest of the country.

In Cuba, hurricanes are monitored by the Meteorological Service from the time they begin to form out of tropical storms anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean. When it is finally determined that one of these will hit the island, the entire country goes into motion preparing to “welcome it.”

The secretary of the Communist Party in the affected province becomes the head of Civil Defense and organizes all measures aimed at the protection of the public and material resources. There have been hurricanes in which more than one million people were evacuated to safe areas in only a week.

For such civil defense actions, Civil Defense has at its disposal all the government’s resources with trucks assigned to state-run businesses and public buses all used for evacuations, while bulldozers and tractors are re-deployed to clear the streets of cities and towns of the “projectiles” of hurricane winds.

Schools like this, and all other reinforced buildings, provide refuge for those living in danger zones. Photo: Raquel Perez

Anything that’s safely constructed — schools, factories, libraries, cinemas and even the Capitolio Building in Havana — become shelters for evacuees, who upon their arrival find mattresses, food, water, toilets and medical care.

However the provincial secretary of the Communist Party couldn’t do anything without the “Defense Zones,” the organizational foundation on which the National Civil Defense system is built. It is a hierarchical structure composed of the residents and exists in each neighborhood or town on the island.

The heads of these Defense Zones are ordinary people whose jobs usually have nothing to do with search and rescue operations. Nevertheless, they maintain strict control over the conditions of buildings in their neighborhoods in order to detect which of these could jeopardize people if battered by a hurricane.

“We organize everything, from the evacuation shelters and the conditions within them, to relocating people from their homes into safer ones of other residents and preparing the conditions for feeding all of them,” explained Saili Cisneros, the head of the Defense Zone in the Prado quarter of Old Havana, when Hurricane Wilma (2005) flooded the capital.

But nor would the Defense Zones be efficient without the support of ordinary people. Hardly a single Cuban refuses to be evacuated. Usually, those people living in danger zones or in unstable buildings have everything ready when the teams come looking for them.

The vast majority don’t even go to the “official” shelters. “Popular” shelters are also organized in neighborhoods and villages that rely on solidly constructed individual homes to provide refuge for other area residents before, during and — if necessary — after the passage of a hurricane. Just the same, these people are also guaranteed food by Civil Defense.

Defense Zones are located in every neighborhood and town, where these operations direct specific actions during the passage of hurricanes. Photo: Raquel Perez

After the hurricane, the “recuperation phase” is declared, during which time the entire country sends human and material resources to assist those who are left without homes. Similarly, roads become filled with food trucks and roofing shingles. Meanwhile, power company crews from other provinces come to repair damaged electric lines and reestablish the telephone network.

If Cuba has been hugely successful in saving lives, it hasn’t been so lucky with the material damage caused by hurricanes. In 2008 three powerful hurricanes destroyed 500,000 homes and caused $10 billion (USD) in losses overall.

What contributes to this is the poor condition of housing and that a considerable part of the constructions have roofing tiles that are routinely blown off. Similarly, the electrical and telephone networks rely on air-strung cable networks, whose wiring, towers and poles are also vulnerable to hurricanes.

As that occurs, campesinos see their banana trees knocked over by gale-strength winds and then watch their beans rot in flooded fields.

Hurricane Sandy was particularly damaging in the east of the country, one of the regions with the greatest housing problems. In fact, some of the deaths were caused by collapsed homes. The 11 deaths had such an impact on the nation that the government-run media published the names of each of the victims and promised an investigation into the cause of each death.


11 thoughts on “Cuba’s Civil Defense War Against Hurricanes

  • Moses, I can only tell you, that denial is a fantastic ability I wish I had, but unfortunately for me I have been given the ability to see things as they are.

    Your beloved country under two party system is effectively suffering a dictatorship hidden behind a facade of democracy, where you actually have a choice between two candidates which are essentially identical. Corruption has already been legalized in form of lobbing and campaign contributions.

    I could go on, but soon you will find out yourself (if you will maintain you sanity, that is), this facade is crumbling and the ugly reality behind it will soon be visible to all.

    You actually had one of the best constitutions in the world, a great republic, but “you the people” have abandoned your duties towards your republic and therefore you are loosing your rights, which never where god given, but hard earned with blood of your ancestors.

  • The American-Spanish war is over and I have never seen a more corrupt meltdown than in the USA, Cuba has its deficits but with a little help from Europe this is very fast fixable, the problem is Cuba has no Managers and everybody is stealing where he can, Integrity and Ethic is a must have. Managers have to be recruited from abroad, retirees is one option, Permanent Residency another, Managers and Money will solve the problem, one mans opinion with two Passports.

  • Reply to ‘Moses’

    RE: “a mechanical engineer for the State” with a “side business to earn the necessary extra money.”

    Commonly known as moonlighting. I’m always shocked when visiting the US, commonly encountering people who work two full jobs to make ends meet – moonlighting and ‘daylighting’?

    The insinuation is that a ‘mechanical engineer’ shouldn’t have to do this as they don’t in the US – if they can find a job that is, increasingly becoming more difficult. It’s how socialism works, dear ‘Moses’. You are just a visitor to Cuba. Stop trying to impose your dysfunctional system on Cubans.

    RE: Cuban authorities not having “begun to mobilize resources in Guantanamo to assist in the repairs to homes.”

    The news I’m getting from Democracy NOW and Al Jazeera are shocking reports of how the US has not even begun assisting people to stay alive in the New York City area! Unbelievable. Lower Manhattan still doesn’t have power or water to homes. No heat and folks filling bottles from fire hydrants. Cameras on the street reporting NO sign of FEMA or any government aid agencies.

    The only one with power is the Stock Exchange, of course, using an emergency generator. Lower Manhattan includes the Lower East Side, traditionally a poor area. Staten Island is also suffering. It’s predominately a working class area of New York.

    As for repairing the damage, unlike in Cuba, only those who were able to afford insurance can expect assistance unless disaster relief is legislated which is unlikely. For a vivid example of what to expect in this case, see Hurricane Katrina.

    Transportation is out in lower Manhattan requiring a car or walking to get around. No buses have been provided. Democracy Now had a journalist on who said Sandy isn’t a problem for people with money. He lived in lower Manhattan and simply cabbed it to a hotel uptown. But most people living downtown can’t afford that option.

    That’s how it works in the US of A. Even for someone like me who thinks he is inured to US ways, it’s a shocker.

    RE: ” it will likely take years (repeat: years) for money and materials to reach the people to repair their homes.”

    How about, it will never (repeat NEVER) to happen for most people in Lower Manhattan and Staten Island and other poor areas unless they were able to afford high-priced insurance, high enough so the company won’t look for every excuse in the book not to pay out – what Americans normally expect to see happen.

    RE: Cubans having “to wait on socialist government ineptitude and mismanagement”.

    As opposed to waiting on NEVER for disaster relief, insurance companies servicing their bottom line before humanitarian principles and these same companies paying millions to political candidates to insure there will be enough loopholes in the law so they can squirm out of paying? Give me socialist ineptitude any time, brother.

    RE: ‘Moses’ coming “to the rescue with the money” for his in-laws.

    As opposed to getting his government to drop the blockade that makes ‘socialist ineptitude’ more costly for Cubans than capitalist ineptitude and corruption in the US. But ‘Moses’ does seem to enjoy playing ‘Santa Claus’ in Cuba. It’s called ‘paternalism’.

    RE: Cubans seeking to escape the “barbarise” of the Cuban government.

    The barbarities of capitalism are doing a good job of making the errors of the Cuban government look positively benign.

    RE: the US still being “the country most people in the world look to for leadership and opportunity.”

    Believed only by folks who exclusively watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh in the US I suppose.

    It’s not just the WMD lie, or the extra-legal murders by unmanned drones in various countries in the world, or the extra-legal murder of bin Laden, or the intervention in Libya’s civil war, or the funding and support of rebels in Syria, responsible for magnifying deaths in its civil war by an enormous factor, or by the irresponsible clown act of opposing rasing the debt ceiling that brought the world to the edge of economic Armageddon – what the Australian Finance minister recently strongly criticised, or the outrageous unconditional support of Israel and its right-wing government and its illegal occupation of Palestinian land, or its continuation of its 50 plus year blockade of Cuba, opposed by every country on earth except Israel,

    It’s ALL of the above. Did you think the world wasn’t watching?

    RE: the US teaching Cuba to avoid “the mistakes made by my country.”

    The US is certainly doing that – avoiding by firmly opposing its imperialist designs.

    RE: It being worse in Cuba.

    That is not an evidenced-based conclusion.

  • Mr. Teague, I certainly do not see the US as a beacon of virtuosity or honest governance. Quite the contrary. In fact, as Cuba seeks to escape the barbaries of dictatorship, most of what the US can teach Cuba is in avoiding the mistakes made by my country. Still, as it sounds as if you have traveled, as bad as things are and have been in the US, it still remains the country most people in the world look to for leadership and opportunity. Interest in the presidential election next Tuesday is international. I do not disagree with one word of your valid criticisms of the US. However, I have lived (not just visited as a tourist) in Cuba. It is worse there.

  • Moses!

    Apparently you live in a different US than I lived in these past 70+ years. The US history of putting bad, corrupt and generally evil presidents, governors, Generals, etc., into jail or shameful retirement is so infrequent and disproportionate to their murderous crimes and the damage they caused, that such outcomes are the exception – and exceptionally rare. Since 1890 the US had over 140 military adventures overseas. We still have hundreds of foreign bases, many really military occupations like Okinawa where the US has been stifling democracy for over 50 years. By the way I was there as saw it in 1957-60.

    If you really care about the general citizens or quality of government here in the US or Cuba or (pick a country), then holding the US up a a beacon of honesty and virtuous government would be a slap in the face of the millions of innocent people that have and continue to suffer due to the uber criminals who usually get way with their occasionally found out and less often prosecuted crimes. Sadly as a bonus, they often make a fortune afterwards lecturing and writing policy at right wing think tanks. The list of examples would make anyone sick to their stomach – unless you don’t care to count psychopaths and sociopaths to say nothing of the many war criminals walking (or being chauffeured) amongst us.

    The real Moses would be about outing and punishing them with hellfire, but then you are not that person.

  • In your response to another post this week, you remarked how the writer erred in focusing on the mistakes made by those in power in Cuba as a means to criticize the socialist system as a whole. Yet here, you have based your criticism of the US disaster response system to Hurricane Katrina on the mistakes made by widely-lambasted George Bush II. Instead, consider the current President´s response as an example of what should happen when properly administered. Besides, when bad politicians make fools of themselves in the US, we send them to jail or just retire them in shame. In Cuba, the fools continue to govern for 50+ years- and even pick up like-minded syncophants like you along the way.

  • Hardly anything the socialist government of Cuba might do could approach the stupidiy, racism, murders-under-the-color-of authority, and un-repaired devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But let’s focus on the supposed shortcomings of Cuba, shall we, and ignore the ineptitude and horrors of the monopoly capitalist giant to the north!

  • My in-laws home in Guantanamo was largely spared the extensive damage many thousands of homes suffered in Santiago de Cuba. Nonetheless, the roof over the taller (small shop) located next to his home that my father-in-law uses to repair home electronics was blown off. He is a mechanical engineer for the State but has this side business to earn the necessary extra money. As yet, Cuban authorities have not begun to mobilize resources in Guantanamo to assist in the repairs to homes. That´s understandable as residents are still cleaning up debris left in the wake of ¨Sandy¨. The problem my father-in-law faces is that it will likely take years (repeat: years) for money and materials to reach the people to repair their homes. At least this is the experience gained from the last hurricanes Gustav and Ike to hit Cuba in 2008. Many homes remain unrepaired from those disasters. In Cuba, there is no such thing as homeowners insurance or Federal Disaster Funds or FEMA to come in after a hurricane to begin immediate repairs. Cubans like my father-in-law are left to wait on socialist government ineptitude and mismanagement to send money, materials and even workers to effect repairs. In my father-om-law´s case, his capitalist daughter and son-in-law will come to the rescue with the money to buy whatever materials, if available, to repair his roof so he can get back to work fixing blenders and fans. That´s the reality in Cuba.

  • What puts Cuba’s record of prevention and its achievements in doubt is the often incomplete reporting of casualties.
    Independent reporters have reported 22 more deaths – above the 11 reported by the regime – as a result of the collapse of a building in the “Mar Verde” Prison in the province of Santiago de Cuba (based on reports of people that buried them).

    See (in Spanish):
    With online translation at:

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