Priorities

September 9, 2005

In times of crisis, our government tends to prioritize the protection of the wealthy – both person and property. Warnings against looting the Wal-Mart are sounded even as thousands suffer and die. Clean, well fed hotel guests are given priority treatment during evacuations, and then weapons are seized, but only from the poor, lest they get any ideas about redistribution of wealth.

In contrast, Cuba is known for keeping all of its people safe and nourished during hurricanes. They practice and plan, and they watch out for each other. They’ve offered us some expert help in the form of hurricane provisioned medical teams. We wont return their calls.

Before Hurricane Ivan whipped Cuba last year with 160 mph winds, the government evacuated nearly 2-million people. The result: not a single death or serious injury.

Although it is a small, poor country in the heart of hurricane alley, Cuba is widely acknowledged to do an exemplary job of protecting its 11.3-million residents from natural disasters. Its record is even more impressive in light of the catastrophic loss of life that the United States – the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nation – is experiencing from Hurricane Katrina.
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Cuba’s form of government – communist and authoritarian – undoubtedly helps it to quickly mobilize in emergencies. But the real key to success is a “culture of safety” in which people at all levels of government and society are committed to reducing risks and saving lives, according to a study by Oxfam, a charity that works in ravaged areas worldwide.

“The single most important thing about disaster response in Cuba is that people cooperate en masse,” the study found.

As Hurricane Georges approached in 1998, a foreign aid worker living in Havana was astonished by the attention to preparedness, she told Oxfam.

“We had a steady stream of neighbors in and out of our apartment, counseling us to fill the bathtub with water, tape the windows, unplug all electrical items, get batteries or candles and put the car in the garage.”

At the same time, a neighborhood representative from the Federation of Cuban Women checked on the “vulnerable population,” including elderly people and single mothers who might need help evacuating. “Everyone, even the children, knew what to do,” the foreigner noted.

Despite its poverty, Cuba has a high literacy rate – almost 96 percent. Instruction in disaster preparedness begins in grade school and continues through higher education and into the workplace. Under a 1976 law, every adult receives civil defense training.
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Most important, all those living in high-risk areas know beforehand where to take refuge – in sturdy homes on high ground or in group shelters, usually schools. Every shelter is stocked with food, water and medical supplies.

There are even plans for moving electrical appliances and other valuables.

“That is interesting because in countries where this is not the case, some people are very hesitant to evacuate because they are afraid of looting,” Zupka says.
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“They invented the science of hurricane forecasting, and they have a rather robust technical capability,” says Frank Lepore, public affairs manager for the U.S. National Hurricane Center. To reduce economic losses, cattle are moved to higher ground and crops are harvested if time permits. All forms of transportation – buses, helicopters, even horse carts – are pressed into service to get people to shelter.
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In Katrina’s wake, Castro has offered to send 1,586 doctors to the nearby Gulf Coast, where many people reportedly have died for lack of medical attention.

“These doctors . . . could already be there offering their services,” Castro told volunteers Sunday as reported by Cuban media. “Forty-eight hours have passed and we have not received any response to our reiterated offer.”

As of Thursday, the State Department said only that “every offer is still being considered.”

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