Interview with Jose Rubiera, meteorologist from Cuba
Once again, Cuba reacted well to the last Hurricane Charley. How do you explain the fact that people respond so well to an evacuation alert?
Hurricanes are the worst disasters faced by the Cuban people. Hurricanes are part of our culture and people know the risk they face if they do not evacuate immediately. Our system works very well because there is a strong political will to implement disaster reduction. We are very good in forecasting hurricanes. People have faith in our meteorological system and take seriously the information we give them. As you already know, I am a meteorological scientist and the weatherman at the national TV station, so people trust me when they listen to what I am telling them. They know I am giving them serious meteorological information. People in Cuba also have a strong background in meteorological information, they have been trained at school from an early age. They are well aware about the meaning of the information we provide them and know exactly what they have to do according to the alert we are launching.
How is this information is disseminated?
Our Cuban Institute of Meteorology is one pillar of our prevention system. We have 7 radars that cover the whole country and are linked to the main meteorological satellites. Our institute was designed by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR); it functions as part of the WMO and the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami for hurricanes issues.
Civil Defence is another pillar. It mobilizes people and organizes the measures that will be taken at the local level. 48 hours a hurricane approaches, all the local heads of provinces and municipalities implement the emergency plan and organize a massive evacuation. Schools and other buildings are converted into shelters. The vulnerable population is specially taking care of. Committees know who is at risk and needs assistance or special help. During the hurricane, everybody has a specific role to play and acts accordingly. Thanks to the reaction of the people, we can evacuate 100000 people in less than 3 hours.
Are your methods effective also in the rural parts of the country?
Everybody in Cuba has access to a TV set. If people do not have TV sets at home, they can always go to the social or government services, which have them. Everybody in the country knows about the hurricane no matter where they are. The two days training exercise in risk reduction for hurricanes that we do every year before the hurricane season, is a country rehearsal that is very useful when hurricanes hit Cuba. More than 3 million people are mobilized for this exercise in May of each year.
Material damage is still huge when hurricanes hit Cuba, is it something you cannot really control?
Cuba has a difficult economic situation. We are now building houses with building codes that prevent the damage of the wind but they are expensive programmes. We cannot stop big and heavy waves coming from the ocean. After hurricane Mitch, we built up more than 1,000 new houses in less than one year but we can reinforce all the houses.
Is the Cuban model replicable to other countries?
Yes I think it is. Many measures that are cost effective could be implemented in most of the Caribbean countries but a political will to achieve this is very important.
Your mechanism is well implemented but is there room for improvement?
We have to improve our educational and information systems. Four people died in the last Charley hurricane, which is too many. Some people are still not reacting rightly to the alerts. There is a lack of vigilance. When we asked the people to evacuate the Havana dikes at 9 am in the morning, some people delayed until 1 p.m. so it was too late when the big waves hit the coast.