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Preparing for Hurricane Ivan, Cuban Style Print E-mail

by Susan Hurlich


Havana, 9 September 2004



The question in Cuba is not if Hurricane Ivan will hit, but what part of the country it will hit. And because this isn't yet clear, the entire country is preparing for what may well be an even worse hurricane than 2001's Michelle, which did more damage than any other hurricane that has hit Cuba to date. 

So now, when Ivan has already taken a mean swipe at much of the Caribbean, pummelling one island after another, leaving at least 20 dead and damaging 90% of the homes in Grenada, and threatening to pounce on top of Jamaica some time Friday, what is Cuba doing to try to minimize the blow of its eventual passage? 

The first thing is keeping the people and state institutions informed. Since September 3rd, when Ivan the Little was only a Tropical Storm well off the coast of Cape Verde in the Far Eastern Atlantic, when there was still the possibility that it could dissipate into a Tropical Depression and then just disappear before ever reaching the Central Atlantic, we knew about it and heard about it on the daily news. It was the ninth named storm of the season (Tropical Depressions have numbers, not names), and though Ivan gained a bit of force over the next two days, it remained a Tropical Storm. But by the end of the day on September 5th, we were informed it had become a hurricane - the fifth one of the season. We were also informed that while it offered no threat to Cuba, we should continue to watch it. 

And watch it we did. And as it continued its movement west, through the Central Atlantic and finally into Caribbean waters, we watched it steadily grow in intensity until it become Ivan the Terrible. And as Ivan grew, so did Cuba's vigilance until finally, at 6pm Thursday evening, September 8th, we were informed that the six eastern provinces of Camaguey, L as Tunas, Holguin, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo had been placed in Alert Phase, while the rest of the country was placed in what's called the Informative Phase. By 1pm today, September 9th, the entire country has been placed on Alert except for the four most-western provinces (Pinar del Rio, the two Havana - rural and the capital - and the Isle of Youth) which are still in the Informative Phase. 

What does this mean - phases? In Cuba, as part of its Civil Defense system, there are four phases to a natural disaster: informative (when the possibility of a hurricane hitting Cuba is anticipated), alert (when that possibility increases), alarm (when the hurricane actually strikes) and recuperative (after the disaster has passed and work begins to repair the damage and reestablish normality). 

The Informative Phase is clear, but to be in the Alert Phase is to start taking concrete actions. For instance, evacuations - and the preparation of centres to receive evacuees - are done during this phase. Students who are in semi-residential or residential schools are brought home. Irrigation systems are dismantled and brought in for safe-keeping. Mature crops, such as banana, are quickly harvested. Cattle and other large livestock are moved from low- lying potential flood areas to higher grounds. And in the urban areas, drains are cleared, debris lying on the streets - such as tree branches, old pipes, whatever - is cleared to prevent it from becoming a killing projectile during strong winds. Tree branches that interfere with power or telephone lines are trimmed. It's a complex, multi-faceted and many-handed process, and it's done quickly. 

This year is heavy for hurricanes in this part of the world. Some forecasters attribute this to the exit of El Niño from the region, and its tendency to bring drought conditions and limit the formation of hurricanes. They say that with El Ni˜o being replaced by La Ni˜a, hurricane formation is encouraged by La Ni˜a's ability to reduce wind shear that tends to rip apart a storm's circulation. So perhaps Ivan, Frances and Charley - the three hurricanes that have played a relentless and ferocious game of tag during the past month in this region - are born from these changes. Cuba is still in an early recovery phase from Charley, and must now stop this to prepare for another hurricane attack. Florida and elsewhere in the US haven't even had a chance to begin recovery from Charley before Frances ripped into the mainland. 

And so we watch Ivan's developments with growing concern: as the hurricane's Central Pressure lowers, it means there will be higher winds. As the eye shrinks, it means the storm is intensifying. As it continues to move over the warm waters of the Caribbean, it means the overall intensity of the hurricane will increase. That's why the waters of the Caribbean are known as Hurricane Alley, as hurricanes draw their energy from the warm surface water of the tropics (usually above 27 Celsius, which is what we have) and latent heat of condensation. This also explains why hurricanes dissipate rapidly once they move over cold water or large land masses. We know that Ivan may slow down, somewhat, over Jamaica, but then it'll be open warm waters until Cuba. 

Ivan. Wobbling between Category 4 and Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, which is a classification based mainly on the intensity of sustained winds (for a one-minute average). But to us who live on land, there's not really much difference: Category 4 has sustained winds of between 210-249 km/hr whereas Category 5 has sustained winds of over 250 km/hr. But with Ivan oscillating right now between 240 and 255, it's much the same thing. It also may not matter much whether the centre of Ivan goes over our heads or not. This afternoon, we heard that for Ivan, hurricane force winds extend outwards at least 55 km from its centre, tropical storm winds at least 280 km, and that intense rains cover a diameter of some 200 km. 

Right now it's raining along the southern coast of Santiago de Cuba, Granma and Camaguey. These are provinces that have been suffering greatly from drought. In Granma, the province's dams are only 32% full. In Las Tunas, rains for this year have only reached slightly over 50% of the year's average. Holguin and Guantanamo are both dry and thirsty. It's the worst drought in 40 years and the entire country is affected. So is it good that whatever else Ivan brings, it'll at least bring rain? 

They do a lot of damage - hurricanes. And yet, for Cuba, they're a mixed blessing. Yes, they bring destruction and even death in their wake (although Cuba makes every possible effort to ensure that deaths are kept at a minimum), but they also fill up dams and give much needed relief to arid areas. Antonio Nunez Jimenez, considered the father of Cuba's speleology and geology and who also played an important role alongside Che in the pre-1959 struggles for the key city of Santa Clara, perhaps said it best. In 1998, after Hurricane George hit Cuba, Nunez Jimenez said "The rivers of Cuba are found in the clouds." 

So there are big pictures and little pictures that make up the whole image. Earlier this evening, I got a call from friends in Baitiquiri, a tiny community located in the semi-desert southern coastal strip of the province of Guantanamo. The name "Baitiquiri" comes from a Taino cacique (chief). When the Spanish conquistadors put up a small fort in this area, the cacique Baitiquiri led his people to the nearby mountains for refuge. But his name stayed. Today, some 940 people live in Baitiquiri. Some work as fishermen and others work in the small salt pans located nearby. You can't really see much of the village when you drive by, as it's located on top of a small plateau - out of the danger of floods even though it's on the coast. Within the community, the roads are all dirt. But surrounding all the low-slung houses are trees, many of which are mango trees - primarily bizcochuela, a type of mango available mainly in Guantanamo and which many Cubans will swear are the most delicious of all! There is also a small but very dynamic Ecology Station located in Baitiquiri, which among other things dedicates itself to community-based development that combines environmental protection and education in the struggle against desertification and deforestation. 

As in all other parts of Cuba that are presently in the Alert Phase of preparations for Ivan, so too in Baitiquiri: today, all residential students have come home. Yaismara, the teenage daughter of my friend who called, is in her second year in a high school located in the foothills to the north of Baitiquiri. Her school is going to be used as an evacuation centre to receive people who live in potential flood areas along the coast. Her brother, Juan Carlos, is a young policeman in Havana, but he went home for his final end-of- summer vacation. Their father, Juan, is a custodian at the small local port and has been helping to bring the small fishing boats into shore where they'll be docked in a protected inlet where manatee often come to feed. And Myda, their mother, tells me that the local "Patricio Sierralta Martinez" primary school, which normally has about 125 students, will become an evacuation centre for women from the maternal centre of San Antonio del Sur, the main town in the area. Located in the southern part of the town, near the open ocean, the maternal centre is nestled in a small residential area that is being evacuated due to the likelihood of flooding - should Terrible Ivan hit this part of Cuba. A doctor and nurse will also be on hand in the school, which has a capacity to temporarily house some 100 people.

And so it goes, in so many parts of Cuba. A collective concern, and collective preparations.


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