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.
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.
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.