Learning from Cuba – Building a Culture of Preparedness

With the official start of hurricane season next week, there have been a number of articles reflecting on past hurricanes, hurricane preparedness, and similar topics.  One particular article mentioned a report written just a few years ago by Oxfam – an international confederation of organizations centered on human rights with a goal of ending poverty which includes the response to emergencies.  Despite having been in Emergency Management for fifteen years, I’ve never read much on Cuba – only cringed when a hurricane would hit them head-on, thinking that a third-world nation didn’t stand a chance.  It turns out that my assumptions couldn’t be more wrong.

The full report from Oxfam can be found at http://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/research-publications/cuba-weathering-the-storm/.  It’s titled ‘Weathering the Storm: Lessons in Risk Reduction from Cuba’.  Structurally, their model is reminiscent of our old Civil Defense model where citizens were recruited for the roles of wardens in their neighborhoods.  These wardens reported to a government person who coordinated efforts for the  community.  Cuba uses this model very successfully.  The ‘wardens’ are responsible for spreading information and  conducting local drills in coordination with whole-government efforts.  The  wardens know their neighborhoods.  They know who might need special assistance in the  event of an evacuation.  The results are staggering.  The report cites that in the seven years between 1996 and 2002, six major hurricanes struck Cuba, yet only 16 people died as a result.  Compare this with hurricane Isabel which hit the mid-Atlantic  US in September 2003.  It was directly responsible for 22 deaths.

The report provides information on planning efforts, communication, education and awareness beginning  with small children, and – like it or not – a political commitment in the nation to protect its people from disasters.  In the end, I feel the most significant factor is the culture of preparedness and community which exists amongst the people.  It is perhaps the most valuable lesson to be learned and quite likely the most difficult to transfer.  Not impossible, though.

There are localized efforts all around our nation for community preparedness.  These efforts need to be encouraged, both in concept and financially, by Federal and state governments alike.  It all starts with individuals, as individuals make a community.  Every person out there can make a difference.  There are volunteer opportunities in every community.  Volunteer Match can help you to identify opportunities that fit your interests and skills.  Or perhaps you have a favorite organization, such as the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army or your local fire department.  Chances are that your church has involvement in disaster preparedness and response efforts, such as Lutheran Disaster Response or Catholic Charities.  It all starts with you.  Then your family.  Then it spreads to your friends and your neighbors.  Then to your community.  Make a difference!

The motto of my consulting firm, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC, is ‘Be proactive and be prepared’.  It’s a challenge to everyone to be involved.  At the very least make sure that you and your family are prepared, but please consider donating some of your time to a local organization and help build a culture of preparedness.

-T. Riecker

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