Hurricane ready: What we can learn from Cuba's storm resilience
By Daniel Hentz
HAVANA, Cuba – In the quiet hour of 4 a.m., University of Havana meteorology professor Armando Caymares was working alone at his desk when he was jolted by a phone call. A familiar voice scratched through the hazy connection. It was Gladys Rubio, a Cuban-American tropical storm analyst at the National Hurricane Center in Miami: Hurricane Michael was tracking toward Cuba. It’s time to get ready.
And just like that, an entire country was in the throes of a well-orchestrated series of storm response measures. In fewer than 24 hours after the call, the elderly and infirm would be transported to high-grounded schools; more than 17,000 tourists would be collected by a fleet of buses traveling to pre-established safety checkpoints; crumbling seaside homes would be sandbagged; and Cuban families would have been forced to collect their week’s worth of state-issued bread.
All of this occurred two days before the storm made landfall.
The Institute of Meteorology in Havana, or INSMET, where Caymares was when he got the call, is regarded as the paragon of sustainable storm management and the envy of storm watchers the world over. Situated as a cluster of buildings and satellites, it overlooks Cuba’s capital from the vantage point of a hilly suburb called Casa Blanca. There, a confluence of scientists and military personnel deliberate every year over dozens of Cuban and U.S. storm prediction models, often well in advance of each hurricane headed their way – including Michael in 2018.
This correspondence between the institute and the National Hurricane Center is perhaps the only line of communication between the United States and Cuba that remains unfettered by America’s 60-year embargo against the island.
“I think we all have to collaborate, because even if [hurricanes] hit Cuba, they go to the U.S.,” says Caymares matter-of-factly about the broken relationship. “So the interest of the U.S. would be to follow what’s happening here.”
Indeed, Cubans have proved to be worth watching in the areas of hurricane science, relief and resilience. In the last decade, Cuba has forged a reputation for exceptional storm resilience, maintaining one of the lowest death rates among Caribbean countries experiencing annual cyclonic activity. Of the last 11 major storms to cross the island, Cuba has observed an average mortality rate of 2 deaths per million people per storm. Five of those 11 storms resulted in zero deaths. In contrast, the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, has hovered around 40 or more deaths per million people per storm, with no indication that the country’s states and cities are capable of lowering this number anytime soon.
The disparity is even more pronounced in nearby nations such as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, for example, more than 530 people died in Haiti, 34 in the southeastern United States and four in the Dominican Republic. Cuba, which evacuated 380,000 people from their homes to safe buildings, suffered zero human casualties.
With a gross domestic product only one-tenth the size of Florida’s, Cuba has surprised many global leaders in public health and coastal engineering who are left wondering how the island nation manages to save more human life on average than any of the at-risk communities across the southern United States, and with a fraction of the financial resources.
“Raising living standards doesn’t automatically make people more resilient, but it does make the point that you can lose more and it doesn’t matter,” says Robert J. Nicholls, professor of coastal engineering at Southampton University in England.
Nicholls, who has aided research in global sea level rise assessments for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, investigated such disparities in storm response alongside a team of environmental scientists led by coastal engineer Darren Lumbroso in 2016. What they found was that, unlike the United States, Cuba has curried more public trust in its emergency-management strategies, resulting in more thorough evacuations.
“I think that there’s this issue of trust in the United States. You could say a command control of society even, because Bangladesh is top down, Cuba’s the same,” he adds. “You can invest more in response measures as well, but Hurricane Katrina shows you can also get a little bit complacent maybe,” he says about the catastrophic hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. “In hindsight Katrina was a disaster waiting to happen [in the United States], because the defenses weren’t good enough.”
One clear advantage of Cuba’s response measures is its ability to force relocation of vulnerable communities. Conversely, to date, the United States has hesitated to engage in such definitive evacuation orders along its coasts in the projected paths of hurricanes.
But as climate change and subsequent warmer oceans continue to supercharge larger, slower and more powerful storms, it may be incumbent upon countries to look upon Cuba as a model for resilience in the coming decades.
Back in Caymares’ office, it was 5:30 a.m., only an hour after he had received the call from Rubio, and now he was meeting with members of the civil defense, a branch of the military tasked with carrying out storm response measures statewide. Presenting all possible trajectories of Michael shown in models from Germany, the U.K. and a total of more than 20 U.S. and Cuban models, he and the institute’s director would present the most likely pathway for the oncoming hurricane.
By the end of that meeting, an action was hatched. The Cuban government knew the exact whereabouts and movements of its citizens, tourists and at-risk communities, with reports issued every hour for three days until the storm finally made its debut.
“It’s a morbid passion,” Caymares says of his work, hair dancing in the winds of Casa Blanca as he spoke. “You see the skies get darker and darker… The clouds are running and the trees are moving. It’s a very unusual phenomenon… I just like that.”
The birth of Cuban hurricane resilience
Cuba’s history is both defined and traumatized by its relationship with storms.
Geographically, the near-800-mile-long island acts as the Caribbean’s unofficial goalkeeper, intercepting many storms that meander through the Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, the island’s gotten a lot of practice in its response to storms.
In 1861, the country developed one of the world’s first storm prediction systems, when a Jesuit priest named Father Benito Viñes discovered consistent patterns in cloud formations that commonly appear in the outer bands of a cyclone.
At the time, the diagnostic system bought Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors a day or two of time, sometimes longer, to properly brace themselves for a storm’s impact. Viñes, still referred to as “Father Hurricane” by the Archdiocese of Miami and the meteorological community there, was thought to have issued multiple warnings via letter sent by boat to nearby islands, including Puerto Rico, in 1876.
For a time, Cuba seemed to lead the world in the study of hurricanes.
Then in 1963, the island was struck by a storm of apocalyptic proportions: category 4 Hurricane Flora.
Uniquely destructive, Flora did not cut through the island quite as quickly as most storms had in the past. Instead, it serpentined through the rural Oriente Province in southeastern Cuba for several days, sustaining high velocity winds and heavy rain that decimated croplands and rural communities. More than 1,200 Cubans died in what is still known today as the deadliest storm to ever hit the island.
Maria Pacheco Gonzalez Caridad, vice director and researcher of Cuban records at the Center for the Studies of José Marti (or CEM) in Havana and a former secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, remembers how ill-prepared the country’s leaders felt at the time.
“We didn’t have dams to actually gather the water… and all of our big rivers overflowed because of the rain. It was a huge disaster,” she repeats. “But, from the mistakes we learn.”
For the still-budding Castro regime, this was a galvanizing event in the island’s history, González recalls. At a time when the United States and its allies were looking for ways to undermine the government, Cuba would need to show it could protect its most precious resource: people.
And so, Fidel Castro demanded the creation of several key apparatuses.
The first was a specialized branch of the military to deal specifically with disaster management, known as the Civil Defense, the same military branch that Caymares works alongside today.
Its main tasks would include mobilizing thousands of vulnerable citizens out of harm’s way and finding ways to reinforce the island’s flimsy countryside structures in addition to some of the dilapidated colonial buildings that populate Havana. Over time, this division served as an impromptu emergency management education center.
González herself gained paramedic experience as a Civil Defense EMT through “Meteoro Training,” something many citizens elect to do as a part of their three years of mandated government service.
Still interested in the nature of storms, Gonzalez created and continues to oversee a meteorological publication called Hurricane De Ternura.
Also, many Cubans, as part of their required state service, work for a cluster of government construction crews that run projects around the island in the absence of commercial developers. As a result, González says, the government has fostered a greater awareness of hurricanes throughout every echelon of society.
“We’ve developed a culture around the hurricane phenomenon,” she says. “People in Cuba are aware of the evolution of each storm that starts, as soon as it’s shaping off the coast of [West] Africa.”
In the same breath that the Communist Party (PPC) established the Civil Defense, leaders knew that Cuba needed a comprehensive alert network to carry out each emergency plan. And so, keeping with the country’s resourceful nature, the government decided to repurpose a remnant of the revolution.
Just after Fidel Castro unseated fascist dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, he assembled the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a group of locally embedded informants whose job it was to seek out and eliminate those who opposed the revolution.
Over time, this group began to assume new tasks handed down by the Popular Party including running health campaigns for diseases like zika and hosting workshops on more effective recycling methods.
During a storm, however, the CDR takes on its most involved role: orchestrating millions of people to move out of their homes and into shelters.
In 2008, more than 2.6 million Cuban citizens, roughly 23% of the population, were swiftly evacuated to evade Hurricane Ike; in 2018, more than 40,000 rural Cubans were preemptively relocated from the rural Oriente Province in anticipation of severe flooding from Tropical Storm Alberto.
The CDR is Cuba’s most effective communications tool, says Caridad, because it operates with members of each neighborhood.
“It’s different if it’s your neighbor that comes and talks to you about what’s good or not good for your health,” says Gonzalez. “When it’s an authority, like a military officer, you’re not as likely to listen.”
Working with what you’ve got
In Havana, the city’s structural vulnerability is hard to ignore.
Throughout the weathered streets, a weave of tangled phone lines web together buildings, both abandoned and occupied. Further along the roads that lead to the Plaza Vieja, Havana’s oldest district, many entryways lack doors – some even lack roofs.
Along Havana’s famed pierside walkway and wall known as the Malecón, waves regularly crash over the wall during high tide.
During Hurricane Irma in 2017, for example, storm surges pushed waist-deep water over the wall, carrying seaside trash inland and flooding Linea Street, one of the city’s central arteries, a sight some residents compared to a Venitian side street.
Despite such hazards, residents carry on with an unmistakable calm when confronted about the perils of cyclonic activity.
“The communication here is so good you always have time to prepare… A hurricane can never be a surprise in Cuba,” says seaside resident Natalia Martínez Menéndez.
For her and many other Cubans, survival is just as much about collaboration and innovation as it is about barricading and sandbagging.
Owner of her own bed and breakfast, Martinez, along with her colleague Oriam Hernendez, made a career out of hospitality when their work as an architect and civil engineer didn’t pay the bills. Both salaries pay the equivalent of about $20 U.S. dollars a month in Cuba.
When they’re not catering to foreign guests, the two leverage their engineering expertise by advocating construction ventures on behalf of community members who may be one bad storm away from losing everything. Hernendez, a father of two sons, is especially concerned with young families who are afraid to leave behind their only belongings.
Lots of people in the flooding area around the Malecón and Galleria de Paseo, a popular shopping mall along the coast, live in basements or the ground floor, notes Hernendez. It’s his and his colleague’s job to install structures to mitigate departure anxiety.
Some of these designs are quite novel.
Ground floor apartments in the greener suburb of Vedado, for example, have what can only be described as a series of outdoor stairs, set flush with the doorway, going up and then down into each apartment. They stop the water while still allowing access to ground-level homes, Hernendez explains.
In other apartments, a community crawl space is installed amid the upper levels so that residents can keep their belongings above the rising waters. This, he insists, is the best way to give Cubans the peace of mind necessary to leave before it’s too late.
But government resources are sparse.
Clay-based brick, a cheap alternative to concrete and rebar and typically all that is available to resource-starved Cuba, comprises many of the oldest buildings across the country. That means buildings are quick to fall to rubble. In fact, when storms make landfall, Hernendez says it is not uncommon to hear explosions as the clay swells from the high levels of precipitation that accompany hurricanes.
Still, the country manages to protect its people. Here’s how:
Once a hurricane has been confirmed a threat, civil defense officials will begin a four-phase alert system: informativa (the storm is forming); alerta (the storm is on its way); alarma (the storm is on our doorstep); recuperacion (the storm has hit and it’s time to rebuild).
“In the United States, you only have two phases of alert: the storm is coming and the storm is here,” says Caymares, the meteorology professor at the University of Havana.
Yet, while the systems of these two countries appear disparate, the data are not so discrete. Cuba continues to implement response plans predicated on U.S. satellite data, gleaned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather prediction model or HWRF (pronounced H-WARF).
Combining this with an alphabet soup of other models from Germany (ICON), the U.K. (ECMWF) and more than 17 other foreign models, the country has managed to generate reliable averages for storm movement, which have ultimately saved lives.
But meteorological collaboration, the last thread connecting the two nations, may be fraying under the tension wrought by the current U.S. administration.
In the past, Cuba’s meteorological community had enjoyed annual invitations to conferences at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Caymares himself was asked to speak at separate forums at the Storm Prediction Center, a government agency in Norman, Oklahoma. It was a rare permission for a Cuban to receive.
Since 2017, however, he and his colleagues have not been able to attend either event.
“Now, it’s a big problem. It’s been two years since we’ve sent someone, because we can’t get a visa from the U.S. embassy,” he says in disbelief.
Tensions have since worsened after new restrictions announced in 2017 limited the issuance of non-academic educational visas to travel to Cuba, along with a ban on travel by U.S. cruise vessels.
Asked what would happen if the U.S. severs communication between the Miami and Havana hurricane-watch communities, Caymares stiffens.
The country would still be able to rely upon prediction models from Germany, the U.K, Meteoro France and even South Korea, he says; continuing, “The problem is, the best labs are in the National Hurricane Center in America.”
Realistically, now is the worst time to hinder Cuba’s storm management machine.
In October of 2018, the U.N.-backed International Panel on Climate Change released a comprehensive report predicting more category 4 and 5 hurricanes per season will follow if global temperatures continue to rise.
Cuban officials do not question that they will. In fact in the latest iteration of the nation’s constitution, published in March, the Cuban government formally acknowledged the threat of climate change and its responsibility to preserve the natural world against it.
Following through, the island’s president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, announced the launch of a 100-year action plan called “Tarea Vida,” or Project Life.
The plan calls for the preservation of Cuba’s wild coastline, from native mangrove forests to the coral reefs, which naturally buffer the island against high velocity winds and flood waters. It also identifies rural communities that may be in the path of rising flood waters. Since its announcement, at least one community in central Cuba has been relocated.
Despite the current stance of the Trump administration, Tarea Vida has garnered acclaim from several noteworthy American NGOs, including conservation groups Ocean Doctor in Washington D.C. and the Environmental Defense Fund based in New York City. Some countries have even seeded Cuba money to accelerate the plan, including Italy, which promised millions in 2017.
With an economy impeded by the embargo, however, it is hard to say whether Cuba can continue to scrape together the resources necessary to meet its goals before the surge of storm water begins to inundate vulnerable communities.
“We’re not perfect. We are vulnerable, but the key thing is solidarity,” says Gonzalez. “If you have to put something at the heart of all of this, it’s that you have to think about human life. Because you can get your things back, material stuff you can get it back, but your life you can’t.”