Here on the East Coast of the United States, Hurricane Irene is approaching and our country is engaged in the serious business of trying to protect lives and property from destruction and danger.
As we put the finishing touches on our Cuba Central News Blast this week, we couldn’t help writing, as we have in the past, about how the subject of hurricanes illustrates so much about the U.S.-Cuba relationship – what’s good and what ought to be fixed.
The storms which cut across Cuba and then land on the U.S. coast are a reminder that we’re bound together by more than geography and weather. We share a common interest in finding better ways to predict the paths of these storms and protect the people placed at risk by them.
There is a conceit among some in our country that we have nothing to learn from the Cuban people and that there’s just no sense in talking to them. But we know that when it comes to hurricanes and civil defense – as with much else – that just isn’t right.
A reasonably modest earthquake near Washington DC last week resulted in traffic jams and raised the same unanswered questions about safely evacuating the Capital that were raised after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
Roughly 1600 Americans died during Katrina in 2005, and we’ve seen scores killed in storms that hit areas in the U.S. less populated than New Orleans just this year. But as hurricane expert Ivor van Heerden wrote in our 2009 report – 9 Ways for US to talk with Cuba and for Cuba to talk to US – Cuba’s civil defense record is much better than ours.
Between 2005 and 2008, a period that included deadly damage here from Katrina and Ike, an average of just 3 Cubans lost their lives in storms.
Fortunately, U.S. and Cuba do talk and exchange some information about hurricanes. The U.S. has especially good data and tools for predicting the tracks and intensities of storms. Cuba cooperates with the U.S. government by allowing over-flights by “hurricane hunter” aircraft.
NGOs, like the Center for International Policy (CIP), lead delegations to Cuba that bring local governments and civil defense officials into contact with their Cuban counterparts, and its sensible that they get the permission needed from both countries to make these exchanges work.
But more needs to be done.
With greater cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba, our government could have better information about storms forming in the Caribbean, benefitting scientists and prediction modelers alike. But the U.S. embargo prevents Cuba from having access to the kind of oceanographic and weather data buoys – and upgrades for their weather stations – that would help our country do a better job protecting our own people from these weather events with better information from Cuba.
CIP recently released a report, U.S.-Cuban Cooperation in Defending Against Hurricanes, which details civil defense strategies used by Cuba – how they handle evacuations, equip hospitals, and engage children in evacuation drills – from which we in the U.S could really learn how to better address the dangers of severe weather events. Direct talks between the governments and more exchanges held in the open with government blessing would facilitate those lessons.
In this era of climate change, storms like Irene are likely to be more frequent and more ferocious; so greater cooperation and engagement with Cuba on this issue makes a great deal of sense. And, as we pointed out in the “9 Ways,” and CIP says in its report this month, conversations on hurricane preparedness can boost confidence and trust between both governments which they surely need to address the other issues which so often divide us.
Ideally, even if Irene cuts the power on the East Coast, a light bulb could still shine over Washington.
And now, this week in Cuba news…