Hurricane Paloma: early evacuation saved lives

Published: 21 November 2008 0:00 CET

Pilar Forcén

When Hurricane Paloma made landfall in Cuba, the worst was expected. However, it lost strength as it crossed the island although it left considerable material damage to infrastructure, homes and livelihoods in its wake.

Camagüey and Las Tunas, the worst hit provinces, were still recovering from the destruction wrought by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in early September, when Hurricane Paloma struck the area, downing power and telephone lines and leaving residents almost totally cut off.

“People were very fearful of the arrival of this hurricane. Everyone recalled stories of the cyclone that slammed into the southern coast of Cuba at the same time of year in 1932, claiming over 3,000 lives,” remarks the disaster relief officer at the Cuban Red Cross in Camagüey.

Emergency appeal

In Santa Cruz del Sur alone, the worst hit area in the province of Camagüey, 25,544 people were evacuated. Hurricane Paloma affected 9,889 houses, 1,353 of which were totally destroyed. Damage caused by hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma now exceeds 10,000 million US dollars.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has launched an emergency appeal for humanitarian aid for Cuba. The goal is to raise funds amounting to 9,604,366 Swiss francs (8,811,345 US dollars/6,156,645 euro) in order to help 60,000 people over the next nine months.

Prevention and evacuation

A total of 6,000 Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers have been supporting operations at shelters and participating in recovery tasks, such as clearing the streets and rubble and repairing damage. They have also provided basic health care, first aid and psychological support to people affected by the hurricane.

Cuban Red Cross volunteers have been cooperating closely with the authorities in prevention and early evacuation efforts in nine provinces.

The Cuban Red Cross also operates a service to restore family links. “We have received 40 requests so far from people in different places who need to trace family members,” observes the officer in charge of this service.

Early warning

Civil Protection confirmed that 1.2 million people were evacuated to safe places after the warning for this third hurricane was issued. From the place where we had taken shelter, we could see the roofs being lifted off our houses,” comments Casia Rodríguez, one of the people affected by the hurricane.

The low number of hurricane victims in Cuba can be attributed to the early warning systems in place, proving that community prevention and preparedness, combined with the efficient coordination of all the resources available to the community, saves lives.

Prevention not only involves evacuating people from houses that are at risk, but also educating the general public about what they should and should not do during the hurricane season and providing support in subsequent phases. Advice is broadcast on the television and radio, warning people, for example, not to cross rivers or touch downed power lines during heavy rains or other extreme weather events.

All this requires not only the coordinated efforts of the authorities, firefighters, the Red Cross Red Crescent etc, but also community involvement in all the information, warning, alert and recovery phases. All citizens collaborate in evacuating people to safe places when they are forced to leave their homes. In fact, most evacuees take shelter in the homes of relatives or neighbours, where they stay until they can return to their own homes.