10 Sep 2008
The fury, the suffering and the lessons
We watched TV footages of the violent impact of hurricanes on the Caribbean Islands and mainland America from far away Africa with sympathy. From the Caicos and Turks Islands through Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba to the US, the 2008 hurricane season has proven to be very problematic.
The $87 billion devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina three years ago that also cost the lives of some 1600 people mostly in the US State of Louisiana reminded everybody how powerful nature’s fury can be.
Of the four storms/hurricanes (Fay, Hannah, Gustav and Ike) that have visited the region in succession this year, two of them -Gustav and Ike have been very destructive.
The Cuban and American authorities have been doing a marvelous job to protect the lives of their citizens through mandatory evacuations. The Cubans evacuated about 500,000 people from the path of Gustav and about 2.6 million from that of Ike. The Americans did same by ordering the evacuation of 2 million citizens from the city of New Orleans and environs when Gustav was heading in that direction and are making similar preparations as Ike approaches the state of Texas. Americans only hope that, like Gustav, Ike will be sufficiently weakened by its passage over Cuba that the punches reserved for them at landfall will be relatively weaker.
Cuba’s material loss from Gustav was astronomical. According to Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper, 140,000 buildings were damaged in Pinar del Rio province and the Isle of Youths. The most affected part of Pinar del Rio province was Los Palacios where 10,000 of the 13000 houses were affected with 6000 collapsing completely. To put it into perspective, the paper said that hurricane Gustav damaged almost as many houses in Pinar del Rio as the combined damage caused by 14 previous hurricanes that have visited the province in the past eight years. The damage caused to roads, bridges, farmlands and the environment in the affected regions is incalculable. The maximum gusts registered in Pinar del Rio province was 340km/hour—the highest record for any hurricane on the planet. It later turned out that hurricane Gustav was just a dress rehearsal of what hurricane Ike was to do one week later to the whole 1000 km length of Cuba. When former president Fidel Castro (now a prolific writer in his retirement) compared the impact of hurricane Gustav to a “nuclear bomb”, little did he know that Ike was still coming to inflict even greater pain on the whole of Cuba.
Different faces of Cuba in normal times. Vinales (top left) in Pinar del Rio was hit by Gustav and Ike; Thousands of tourists were evacuated from Varadero (top right) and Havana (left) was whipped by wind and drenched by rain. (photo: Njei M.T)
The other countries in the Caribbean had their different doses of the bitter pills of the hurricanes. Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Turks and Caicos are all licking their wounds after the passage of these storms. Turks and Caicos had a direct hit from Ike (that reportedly damaged 80% of houses) while other Islands were directly or indirectly affected by the other storms. The case of Haiti is particularly pathetic not because she had anything close to the punches received by Cuba, but because she is the most vulnerable (using any criteria). Haiti (pop. 9 million) has always been living on the edge. For over 200 years, this country has been plagued by bad governance, dictatorship, poverty and corruption. Today, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and it virtually depends on the UN for her security and many other services. Due to uncontrolled deforestation and anarchic settlements, low lying towns like Gonaives have routinely been linked to hurricane-related disasters. In September 2004, more than 3000 people were killed and about 300,000 rendered homeless in Gonaives by tropical storm Jeanne. Today, the wet conditions triggered by the ongoing hurricanes have already killed some 300 people and displaced about 10% of Haiti’s population. Some parts of Gonaives now look like muddy pig dwellings and many houses appear like cubical boats floating on brownish muddy water. For a country that was already living on handouts, this situation can only exacerbate its helplessness. Nobody seems to figure out when Haiti will ever return to its pre-hurricane situation given the complex social and economic challenges facing this failing state.
Cuba, the most maligned nation in the region stood out clearly as the best prepared country to combat natural disasters such as hurricanes. The Cuban Civil defense is one of the best organized in the world and they take issues of human safety seriously. The mobilization to safeguard the lives of Cuban citizens during the onslaught of hurricanes Gustav and Ike was exceptional. It seems miraculous that Cuba only recorded 4 fatalities from the direct impact of these ferocious hurricanes. Even at the peak of her struggle with the storms, Cuba could still afford to extend humanitarian assistance (doctors) to beleaguered Haiti. While countries that are exposed to hurricanes and typhoons can do little to prevent these storms, they can at least get some civil defense lessons from Cuba so as to limit fatalities associated with these natural disasters.
The least thing that those of us that are far away from the scene of disaster can do is to express our sympathy and solidarity with the victims and wish that new storms do not come their way as they try to rebuild their lives. As I write, Ike is moving towards the US state of Texas as a category two hurricane.
View hurricane-related images at the following Cuban News Agency and BBC links below.
Link to hurricane Gustav images (Cuba)
Link to hurricane Ike images (Cuba)
Link to Haiti images
Njei Moses Timah