The U.S. Should Look to Cuba for Hurricane MitigationRoundup
tags: climate change, Cuba, hurricanes
Mikael Wolfe is assistant professor of history at Stanford University and author of Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico. He is currently working on a book project titled Rebellious Climates: How Extreme Weather Shaped the Cuban Revolution.
As Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana on Sunday, knocking power out to the entire city of New Orleans and beyond, many people nervously wondered, “will Ida be another Katrina?” Katrina, of course, struck the city 16 years ago to the day that Ida hit. The disastrous federal response to Katrina by the George W. Bush administration combined with the failure to act on the long-standing knowledge that the city’s levees probably would be unable to resist an intense storm surge. Both failures contributed to the death of 1,833 people in the majority-Black city, hundreds of thousands of people displaced and more than $100 billion in property damage. Katrina was a national catastrophe that revealed an appalling lack of governmental disaster preparedness rooted in systemic racism.
Unfortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s record since Katrina, particularly under the Trump administration, has not improved much, as Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017 tragically reinforced.
This failure to learn from past mistakes stands in stark contrast to Cuba, which is also regularly battered by the same powerful hurricanes that, like Ida this past week, eventually reach the U.S. coastline.
After the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, Cuba became a U.S. Cold War enemy — something made clear with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. But there was another event in October 1963 that is little remembered in the U.S.: Hurricane Flora, the first major hurricane to strike the island nation after Castro assumed power. One of the worst in Cuba’s history, its catastrophic effects prompted Castro to establish a civil defense system in 1966 that became a global model according to the United Nations and the charitable development agency Oxfam International.
After killing as many as 5,000 people in Haiti, Flora barreled west into eastern Cuba on Oct. 4, 1963. Unlike Haiti’s U.S.-backed right-wing President François Duvalier, Castro’s Communist government ordered residents living in the hurricane’s projected path to evacuate their homes, and if they were unable, to stay and prepare appropriately for the storm. And despite the Cold War divide, Cuban meteorologists worked closely with their U.S. counterparts projecting Flora’s course and then reporting on its actual path. Gordon E. Dunn, director of the Miami-based U.S. Weather Bureau, praised Cuban meteorologists for having “carefully surveyed the hurricane area and on the basis of the survey and hourly observations during the storm,” allowing them to determine its track.
Yet these efforts proved insufficient when the hurricane dumped more rain in 100 hours on the eastern provinces than the entire country had received during all of 1962. As a result, Castro, his brother Raúl, his Argentine comrade-in-arms Ernesto “Che” Guevara and other revolutionary leaders personally put themselves in harm’s way to lead rescue and relief operations for those who could not escape.
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