Hurricane lessons learned from Cuba

April 30, 2009 5:54:11 PM PDT
It's considered an historic visit between two very different cities which have a lot in common. For the first time ever, a Galveston mayor made an official trip to Havana in the communist country of Cuba. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Both cities have been ravaged by hurricanes and officials wanted to talk about those similarities and how hurricane preparedness can save lives.

In Havana, the view from the seawall is breathtaking and treacherous. Like in Galveston, locals and tourists take long walks along the wall to relax. Not surprising, both seawalls were built as barriers against hurricane force tidal surges in the early 1900s after the great storm ravaged both cities.

And just like in Galveston, the wind is a constant issue there. It is truly a windy city and hurricane force winds have caused epic damage.

Havana and Galveston are home to architecture considered historic. Some buildings we saw are colonial in style and many are severely damaged. Only some have been restored after Hurricane Ike. Building materials aren't as plentiful there as in the U.S. and renovation can take years if it happens at all.

Legend has it a castle there was a pirate stronghold. It's a legend that persists closer to Texas as well, with pirates part of Galveston's colorful history. Yet with so much in common, both cities remain vastly different in methods of hurricane preparedness.

"Their medical organization for training people to be prepared for care of those people during and after a hurricane is better organized than we are in Galveston and frankly, I think, in the state," said Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas.

Mayor Thomas traveled to communist Cuba as the guest of a Washington group called the Center for International Policy. No Galveston taxpayer money was spent. This was strictly a trip to exchange ideas and discuss different hurricane strategies.

The Cuban government, which controls the local media, approved our camera but did not approve complete coverage. We were shut out of every meeting.

Even though we had our working journalists passes, we weren't allowed inside the building. The mayor met with officials from the Central American medical disasters from Latin America. This is a conversation that has been 100 years in the making.

The Hospital Nacional and other island hospitals evacuate patients before a hurricane, but must remain open and at full staff during a storm.

All Cuban communities have a civil defense coordinator in charge of warning and communicating with neighbors. Civil defense training for all Cubans is mandatory, so is evacuation.

The government-run weather broadcasts, which we weren't allowed to see, are the only source of weather information going out during a hurricane.

"The Cuban government also goes into neighborhoods prior to storms and reassures citizens that not only will their lives be protected, but so will their property will be protected," said Mayor Thomas.

Cuban officials told us the government will go into all homes and physically move furniture to higher ground, all while citizens must get out. Cuba says it's a strategy that saves lives and property, but would it be acceptable in a free and democratic society?

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