With this year's hurricane season expected to be every bit as fierce as last year's, international disaster organizations are looking to Cuba for disaster-management strategies.
"Cuba is one of the best prepared, if not the best prepared for natural disasters," U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland told Reuters. "The same hurricane which would take zero lives in Cuba would kill massively in Haiti."
When Hurricane George struck in 1998, only six people died in Cuba; 209 were killed in Haiti. The six hurricanes that hit Cuba from 1996 to 2002 killed 16 people, compared to 649 killed elsewhere in the region.
Key elements of the island's hurricane preparedness strategy are extensive training, community planning, and simulation drills.
Disaster-response training starts in childhood as part of school curricula and continues with adult education at the community level. It is also part of standard training for health care professionals. Over 95 percent of the population has been trained in a four-step framework: information, alert, alarm, and recovery. As a result, virtually all Cubans understand weather warnings that refer to these steps and know their roles during every stage of a storm.
Community-based disaster planning uses the same four-step framework. Before the hurricane season, planners map both risks and assets such as storm-proof houses, vehicles, and doctors. Taking into account people's needs, every neighborhood then determines who will stay where and assigns those in charge of helping the neighbor with the broken leg or the single mom on the third floor.
Two-day community-level simulations called "Meteoro" bring the plans to life around May, before the storms build up. Local officials, health workers, and teachers rehearse their roles as evacuation coordinators and discuss responses to possible scenarios based on their local plan. Then everybody practices the evacuation and carries out safety preparations such as cutting tree branches or securing wells.
The combination of education, planning, and practice builds a culture of safety and puts both the logistics and motivation in place to enable people to cope with storms that cause devastation and panic elsewhere.