April 29, 2009
 
PARALLEL UNIVERSE: Galveston's Learning from Cuba About Hurricanes -- Finally!
 
By David M. Kinchen
Huntingtonnews.net Editor
 
The headline caught my eye as I was scanning my inbox: "US goes to Cuba for hurricane evacuation advice." It was from Caribbean360, a news site I regularly receive and it referenced a Houston Chronicle story about a four-day visit of Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas of Galveston, TX to Cuba to study hurricane evacuation procedures.
 
(Link to Houston Chronicle story: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/6393804.html)
 
Galveston was severely battered last September by Hurricane Ike and there was much criticism about the lack of evacuation procedures on the barrier island. Lyda Ann Thomas, with her distinctive Texas drawl, became familiar to viewers of Houston television coverage of the storm -- including the present writer wondering if Ike would strike his new hometown of Port Lavaca, about 100 miles down the Gulf coast. It didn't get to us, although many people in Port Lavaca evacuated and plywood became the exterior decor of choice for homes and businesses.
 
The Chronicle wrote that "With little more than a month before the advent of the 2009 hurricane season, the mayor has visited with some of the most practiced - and successful - managers of storm preparedness in the world."
 
We like to think we do everything better in the U.S. and in disasters like earthquakes, we probably do. With hurricanes, it's a different story, as demonstrated by Katrina in 2005 and Ike in 2008.
 
The Chronicle reporter accompanying Mayor Thomas to Cuba, Harvey Rice, wrote that "Last year Cuban authorities dealt with a record three major hurricanes, one of which, Ike, went on to smash the Upper Texas Coast. Although Ike was stronger when it struck Cuba, storm-attributed deaths there were far fewer than in Texas."
 
Rice reported that part of the Cuba's success in limiting storm casualties "results from use of police and military to enforce evacuation orders and protect evacuees’ property. So-called mandatory evacuation orders in Texas are not enforced by authorities if residents refuse to leave."
 
Rice wrote that "Cuba also requires adults to take civil defense training and maintains what a study by the Oxfam disaster relief organization called 'a culture of safety' in which all elements of the population work together in emergencies to protect vulnerable individuals."
 
There's a lot of irony here because Galveston's officials ignored Cuban forecasts in September 1900 about a major storm over Cuba that the island's forecasters predicted would head for the Texas Gulf coast. Erik Larson described the natural disaster -- the worst ever in U.S. history in terms of lives lost -- in "Isaac's Storm " a book about the devastating 1900 hurricane which killed as many as 10,000 people in the city of 45,000.
 
On Sept. 4, 1900, the Galveston office of the U.S. Weather Bureau began receiving telegraphic warnings from the Washington DC office that a "tropical storm" had moved northward over Cuba. Weather Bureau forecasters, including Galveston's Isaac Cline, believed the storm would travel northeast and affect the mid-Atlantic coast. Cuban forecasters disagreed, saying the hurricane would continue west. One Cuban forecaster predicted the hurricane would continue into central Texas near San Antonio. The Cubans were right and the hubris of U.S. weather forecasters resulted in little or no evacuation and the resulting massive death toll.
 
In the wake of the 1900 Hurricane, Galveston, which had challenged Houston for economic supremacy, built a seawall. The city never regained its prominence and it became a popular resort destination rather than an economic powerhouse like Houston and other Texas cities farther inland.
 
The moral of this is we in the States should follow the example of Lyda Ann Thomas and learn from Cuba and others about hurricane preparation and evacuation procedures.



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