“I wish I could have told that story to a larger audience this weekend,” said U.S. Army Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré at a Wednesday morning session on disaster mitigation and U.S.-Cuba cooperation.
The story he is referring to occurred in 2005 when the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which is hosting this year’s APHA Annual Meeting, was a collection point for 60,000 people during Hurricane Katrina. Nine years ago, a hospital was set up in what is now the Public Health Expo hall and people filled the streets, desperately waiting for help. Mentally ill individuals were particularly hard to treat during the aftermath, as they had gone days without medication. It took a week to get elderly patients to safer locations. Buses were called in to evacuate people after the hurricane hit. In the end, action was taken too late for too many.
The devastating consequences of Katrina motivated Honoré to travel to Cuba to learn about that country’s disaster preparedness system, which had been proven to be effective and efficient. During the session, he noted that Hurricane Katrina passed through Cuba before it got to Louisiana; however, the negative impacts on Cuba were nowhere near the effects the storm had on New Orleans.
“Cuba is a country of 10 million and a poor country,” he said. “But their priority is to save lives.”
Guillermo Mesa Ridel, director of the Latin American Center for Disaster Medicine, discussed the strategies that Cuba uses to reduce the impacts of natural disasters and implement emergency preparedness plans. The country’s disaster mitigation plan is highly committed to prevention efforts: national drills prior to hurricane season and the training of carrier pigeons as a method of emergency communication are some of the innovative ways that Cuba prepares for disasters. Ridel also emphasized the importance of not creating new vulnerabilities during the disaster recovery phase.
The session presenters highlighted lessons that the United States could learn from Cuba, a country that considers disaster preparedness to be part of their culture. In fact, the Cuban definition of a disaster is not the natural event that takes place, such as a hurricane. The true disaster is the aftermath — damage to infrastructure, economic consequences and especially the loss of life.
A Cuban citizen among the audience concluded the session with these thoughtful words: “For every Cuban person, a disaster happens when one person dies.”
Above photo: Earlier this week, APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, left, signed a memorandum of understanding with C. Alcides Ochoa Alonso, right, president of the Cuban Society of Public Health. The memorandum formalizes a partnership between the two organizations aimed at strengthening public health capacity and leadership in the Americas. Photo by Michele Late, courtesy APHA Flickr