Residents make their way through a flooded street after Hurricane Ike hit the area in Camaguey, Cuba, on Monday, Sept. 8, 2008. Ike roared across Cuba, causing the evacuation of some 900,000 Cubans. (AP photo/Javier Galeano)
HAVANA — When Hurricane Ike struck Cuba, Ronald Matos didn’t think twice about fleeing his one-room wooden house for a government shelter.
The 34-year-old construction worker and his wife, Emma Jean, got soft beds, free meals, the attention of a doctor and solicitous social workers — and the companionship of other friendly Cubans.
“We passed the night talking and telling stories, because Cubans never lose their smiles or their sense of humor,” he said. “There is no electricity, but we are better protected than in our homes.”
With an inefficient centralized economy and a U.S. embargo that has stifled trade, Cuba doesn’t have resources to build new, hurricane-proof buildings. It doesn’t have fleets of Humvees to charge through the floodwaters. Few of its people have cars to flee in, and fewer still can check on loved ones by cell phone.
But if there’s one thing the communist island does right, it’s evacuations. And in the end, that saves more lives than anything else.
Cuba sees more than its share of killer hurricanes, and yet in the past decade only 23 Cubans have been killed by them.
When Hurricane Gustav roared across western Cuba as a Category-4 hurricane on Aug. 30, it damaged 100,000 homes and caused billions of dollars in damage. Nobody died. The storm then moved onto Louisiana, which launched a massive evacuation and saw 26 people die.
The death toll from Hurricane Ike this week was shockingly high by Cuban standards: five. This, for a giant storm that tore across the length of the island, flattening houses in its path. Compare that with Haiti, which took glancing blows from Hanna and Ike and saw hundreds die.
The secret is the evacuations system. A quarter-million Cubans evacuated during Gustav, and the number for Ike was a staggering 2.6 million — nearly a quarter of the island’s population. Most of the evacuees found family or friends to stay with, but nearly 400,000 were housed in 2,300 government shelters.
“We clearly cannot simply mimic their system, but I think there is a lot the United States can learn from Cuba’s hurricane response system,” said Wayne Smith, the former U.S. top diplomat in Havana. “They have a whole system of alerts that keep people clued in and we don’t have anything like that.”
He spoke by telephone from Mobile, Ala., where he was talking to preparedness experts about Cuba’s disaster response model.
Cuba’s evacuations differ greatly from those in the United States, where people rush to airports for overbooked flights or pile into cars that clog highways. In Cuba, people are already prepared, part of a sophisticated system overseen by the president and the armed forces.
Standing evacuation plans are distributed to each household long ahead of time, and evacuation drills are held regularly. When a hurricane is approaching, state news media issue early warning, and civil defense officials activate local response networks, organized down to each block of each town.
Schools and other government buildings are quickly turned into shelters, and each is assigned a doctor and sometimes a nurse. Volunteers check stocks of blankets, water and food. Forty-eight hours before an expected hit, residents are told to prepare to evacuate.
When the storm is a day away, volunteer civil defense workers go door-to-door to ensure everyone gets out of harm’s way. Government buses, cars and trucks transport evacuees to higher ground. Government shelters take in anyone who can’t find a place to stay.
Of course, this is easier done in Cuba than in the United States because the communist government owns and controls most of the nation’s resources. Unlike the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, it doesn’t have to buy supplies or contract services from private companies, or pay overtime.
Most Cubans work for the government and don’t have to worry about losing wages if they take off from work. And because police keep a close eye on evacuated areas — and because most Cubans have few possessions of value anyway — looting isn’t a major concern.
Cubans are taught from an early age to move quickly in the event of a natural disaster and to follow authorities’ instructions. So the government rarely has to force people to leave.
The only people for whom evacuations are mandatory are pregnant women and mothers with young children, who can be fined if they don’t comply.
When Ike approached, Anay Estrada was reluctant to leave the single room she shares with six others. But as she is seven months pregnant, two police officers showed up at her door.
“I didn’t want to leave my mother,” Estrada said from a shelter at a maternity hospital, where she waited out the storm with her 7-year-old daughter, Melani. “But they came in a patrol car so I had to go.”
In addition, special attention is paid to the elderly and handicapped — people who critics say U.S. authorities abandoned when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans three years ago. Several hundred elderly and handicapped people and their companions waited out Ike in an Old Havana convent, a white, bouganvilla-covered structure with an imposing bell tower.
Part of the reason people are so obedient is that the government has a good track record of predicting what storms will be dangerous.
“By predicting hurricanes accurately almost all of the time, [Cuban] meteorologists have engendered the public’s trust,” said Jane Griffiths of Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. “That’s why people voluntarily respond to evacuation orders.”
And if anyone has doubts, authorities quickly put an end to them. The state news media often makes examples of people who fail to move out — and who are killed or injured.
Last Wednesday, an elderly man was trapped under the rubble of his evacuated Havana apartment building when he returned home before the building was inspected for safety. Coroner officials confirmed that he died.
“Unfortunately, there was irresponsibility in this case,” said Lt. Col. Rolando Menendez, a firefighter overseeing rescue efforts. “But in general, the population is following civil defense measures well.”