Cuba teaches lessons in severe weather

April 13, 2015 01:30


By Dr. Pamela Tran, University of Alabama
As the doors to Cuba openly slowly for U.S. citizens, many anticipate bringing back rum and cigars, but another “export” from Cuba could save lives in the U.S.: Severe weather procedures.

How can electronic media best serve when severe weather threatens? Learning from each other.

As we prepare for the April tornado season in Tuscaloosa Alabama, I had the privilege of meeting with weather experts in Havana to promote a joint conference between the University of Alabama and Cuba on severe weather coverage.

Cuba faces danger from an occasional tornado and is often the front door through which hurricanes approach the U.S. As the biggest and most populated island in the Caribbean, they are well known and praised (even by the United Nations) for their hurricane preparedness and evacuation plans that result in astounding low death tolls.

How do they do it? Well, house and building construction inspections and year round school and community drills help. But the most striking point about their system to me is the cooperation between citizens, scientists, media and government when severe weather is imminent. The country has a coordinated four stage system that kicks in three days before predicted land fall and continues through assessing damages and helping people return to their homes.
The system works because the National Civil Defense (DCN) structure is already in place before the storm strikes. They coordinate to check and supply shelters, send children home from schools and help assure mandatory evacuation of effected areas. The DCN even includes assigned block captains to take a census of those evacuated and aid the elderly and impaired.

The actions of the DCN are all triggered by reports from the National Forecast Center. Their meteorological institute has 15 provincial offices.  Around 72 hours before the hurricane hits, the state run television service begins broadcasting alerts, instructions and storm tracking updates. The rock star of the operation is the Director of the Centro Nactional de Pronostica and Instituto de Meteorologia—Dr. Jose Rubiera. 
Despite the long title, Rubiera is very succinct but energized as we talk inside the neat but sparingly decorated offices of the institute.
As he tells me that he broadcasts continually on national TV when a hurricane approaches Cuba I try to explain the U.S. idiom—“Wall to wall coverage.” He grabs the term with excitement—“Yes, yes!”  I talked a bit about some of the ways reporters used interactive Internet and social media during tornadoes in Tuscaloosa. I was thinking about all the reporting possibilities that would expand for Cuba as the U.S. embargo loosens and Internet is upgraded across the country.
During this moment the power cut out and all was quiet in the room for about five seconds, then the generator cut in.  So, of course you have generator back up, I said, but do you have trouble reaching citizens in rural areas due to outages or lack of TVs? Rubiera explained what I’ve read before—All citizens have access to a TV set or if not they can go to a government office to watch. I was hoping that my reservations about this statement didn’t show on my face. I asked him about radio options for alerts in the more rural and mountainous areas of Cuba. He assured me they simulcast on all airwaves. Then he smiled as he remembered and shared a situation where a man in the rural mountainous region drove around before a storm using a loudspeaker to broadcast weather alerts from his car for his neighbors.
As I left Rubiera’s institute I felt excited about the future possibilities for collaboration between our two countries and for the advances that prevalent high speed Internet could provide for Cuban media in severe weather coverage.  However, I am also now reminded that media professionals must value all mediums and all individuals in severe weather coverage.  I look forward to seeing what media professionals in our two countries can learn from each other!
Hurricane Sandy killed 11 people on the island. 69 deaths were attributed to the storm across the Caribbean, including 52 in Haiti. It was the deadliest hurricane for the island since Dennis in 2005.

Dr. Pamela Tran is a Prof. of Electronic News at the University of Alabama.  Her trip to Cuba was a part of the University of Alabama’s Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship building on a research exchange that began in 2002.