Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lesson from Ike: Nobody does evacuations like Cuba

Lesson from Ike: Nobody does evacuations like Cuba

By ANITA SNOW Associated Press Writer

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, Alabama, 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.

On 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."

Evacuees from Hurricane Ike rest at a shelter in Havana, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008. Hurricane Ike roared ashore south of Cuba's densely populated capital of aging buildings Tuesday after tearing across the island nation, ravaging homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Evacuees from Hurricane Ike rest at a shelter in Havana, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008. Hurricane Ike roared ashore south of Cuba's densely populated capital of aging buildings Tuesday after tearing across the island nation, ravaging homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Evacuees from Hurricane Ike rest at a shelter in Havana, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008. Hurricane Ike roared ashore south of Cuba's densely populated capital of aging buildings Tuesday after tearing across the island nation, ravaging homes, killing at least four people and forcing 1.2 million to evacuate. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)


Greensburg on display at Chicago museum

CHICAGO | One year after a devastating tornado in Greensburg, Kan., the Field Museum opened an exhibit this spring called “Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters.” It explains how the tornado happened and offers ideas for protecting yourself in such an event.

Twelve persons died in or near Greensburg, and 95 percent of the town’s structures were destroyed by the May 4, 2007, storm, whose winds reached 200 mph.

The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 4, includes large photos showing the aftermath of the tornado and artifacts from the south-central Kansas town that bear witness to the force of the EF-5 tornado:

•A stop sign, bent around a sign post.

•A tree stump stripped of its bark.

•A piece of bent metal embedded in a block of wood.

Besides the section on tornadoes, the exhibit also explores hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes.

Most of the tornado section is dedicated to the destruction in Greensburg. Other parts explain how tornadoes form and why they occur so often in the central United States, known as “tornado alley.”

A highlight is “The Tornado-in-the-Round,” a nearly 360-degree video taken by a special camera that was placed in the path of a tornado.

As visitors stand in the middle of a circle of screens, the tornado approaches from the front, moves over and passes behind them. Thrown debris appears to hit the screens loudly.

The exhibit ends on an optimistic note about efforts to rebuild Greensburg as a more environmentally friendly town. One of the final questions the exhibit asks as museum visitors exit is, “What kind of community do they (residents of Greensburg) want to be?”


Family Disaster Plan

check markDiscuss the type of hazards that could affect your family. Know your home's vulnerability to storm surge, flooding and wind.

check markLocate a safe room or the safest areas in your home for each hurricane hazard. In certain circumstances the safest areas may not be your home but within your community.

check markDetermine escape routes from your home and places to meet. These should be measured in tens of miles rather than hundreds of miles.

check markHave an out-of-state friend as a family contact, so all your family members have a single point of contact.

check markMake a plan now for what to do with your pets if you need to evacuate.

check markPost emergency telephone numbers by your phones and make sure your children know how and when to call 911.

check markCheck your insurance coverage - flood damage is not usually covered by homeowners insurance.

check markStock non-perishable emergency supplies and a Disaster Supply Kit.

check markUse a NOAA weather radio. Remember to replace its battery every 6 months, as you do with your smoke detectors.

check markTake First Aid, CPR and disaster preparedness classes.


Most advanced' rescue sub tested

Rescue vessel

The world's most advanced rescue submarine, commissioned by the Chinese Navy, is undergoing trials at an underwater centre in Fort William.

Capable of operating in depths of more than 300 metres, its size means it can rescue up to 18 people at once.

The trials are taking place in Loch Linnhe, where water depths are up to 150 metres.

The vessel could deal with incidents such as Russia's Kursk disaster 2000, in which 118 sailors died.

Once the first phase of tests are completed, the LR7 will take part in a simulated rescue.

The final phase of trials, part of an extensive testing and design process, will include pilot training.

The vessel was designed and developed by Perry Slingsby Systems, part of the Aberdeen-based Triton Group.

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Underwater tour of the rescue sub

BBC reporter Ben Geoghan described the experience of going down in the submarine as "quite comfortable". He said the main advantage of the LR7 is its large size.

He added: "There is, what someone described to me, as something of an underwater space race going on. One which presumably the Chinese now are leading, but the Koreans and Singaporeans are not far behind.

"The real test will come when we do get another accident at sea involving a sub to see which vessel is deployed and whether they do manage to bring back survivors."

The rescue submarine itself has a relatively quick turnaround time and can stay underwater for up to four days.

Martin Anderson, chief executive of Triton Group, said it was an "extremely exciting development".

After the trial is complete, the LR7 will undergo further checks and be fitted with ancillary equipment before being delivered to China for sea trials.