Cuba: Early warning saves lives in “worst hurricane in 50 years”

Published: 4 September 2008 0:00 CET

Manuel Esteban Rodríguez in Havana Early warning systems saved many lives when Hurricane Gustav hit Cuba – but the damage to homes and infrastructure is immense.

As clean-up teams finish removing the remains of fallen trees in Havana’s main streets, Tony, a Red Cross volunteer, remarks: “They have just about finished cleaning up here - imagine what it must have been like in Pinar del Río”.

Pinar del Río is the province hardest hit by the hurricane. Of the 100,000 homes destroyed by Gustav, 70,000 are in Pinar del Río, where some 500 schools were also damaged.

The Cuban authorities estimate that 45 per cent of housing in the municipality Isla de la Juventud has been damaged. Images of the island show the entire electricity system down with toppled power lines. The municipality of Los Palacios is another of the most seriously affected areas, with 10,000 of its 13,000 houses damaged, and 6,000 of those totally destroyed.


The Cuban Red Cross is currently focusing its relief efforts on this province, and also plans to carry out operations in the provinces of Santi Espíritu and Cienfuegos.

Gustav is the strongest hurricane to have hit Cuba in the past 50 years. It has been compared to Michelle (2001), Isidore and Lili (2002) and Ivan (2004), and some say it may be even stronger. The impact of Gustav is still being evaluated, and the tally of the damage caused could rise further over the next few days.

“The effects of Hurricane Gustav add to the devastation left in the wake of Tropical Storm Fay as it swept across Cuba a week earlier. Around 2,500 volunteers were called into action to address relief needs arising from Fay, and 4,000 volunteers had to be mobilized to deal with the damage caused by Hurricane Gustav,” explained Dr Luis Foyo, director general of the Cuban Red Cross.


“Our volunteers took part in evacuation operations in high-risk areas and carried out other activities, such as support in the emergency shelters, food distribution, first aid, psychological support and the restoration of family links,” he added.

The early warning system proved effective, as reflected in the rapid evacuation of people at risk, the dissemination of information messages and immediate emergency response, which prevented Gustav from causing any loss of life in Cuba.

One of these prevention messages was seen on national television by Richard and Maria, two Australian tourists on holiday in Cuba. “We saw Red Cross volunteers helping to evacuate people. We were very impressed by how the early warning system worked and the importance attached to helping tourists like us during the hurricane,” remarked Richard.