One year after Sandy, solidarity and preparedness help Cuba rebuild
“I am one of the lucky ones. The damages to my own home were minimal; I have neighbors who lost everything,” says Maria Elena Valle Ortega, a resident of ‘30 de noviembre’, a neighborhood in Santiago de Cuba province in the south-east of the island, reflecting on the night Hurricane Sandy lashed their small community.
- More than 300,000 homes were damaged and 3 million people affected when Hurricane Sandy hit Cuba in October 2012
- UNDP embarked on a US $6 million recovery programme to help communities rebuild
- One year after the storm, approximately 50 percent of the damaged homes in Santiago de Cuba have been rebuilt
Maria Elena vividly remembers the feelings of concern for her home and neighborhood while she waited in the shelter of the local primary school, along with 23 other members of the community.
“The Government told everyone to move into shelters or with family members and neighbors. The first announcements came days before the storm reached, and the evacuations started hours before the storm hit the island. Everyone left very quickly, it saved our lives,” says Maria Elena.
On the night of 24 October 2012, Sandy, then a category three hurricane and at its peak intensity, barreled into Cuba with winds over 175 KPH and torrential rainfall. By the time the storm left the island, 11 people had died, three million were affected, and more than 300,000 homes were damaged. In Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city, approximately 170,000 homes, over half of the town, had been damaged or destroyed.
“The impact was significant; it was the biggest hurricane to hit a major city in Cuba in over 50 years. Having said that, it could have been much, much worse,” notes Rosendo Mesías, UNDP’s Disaster Programme Officer in Havana. “The fact is that the island is heavily exposed to storms and Sandy was at peak intensity when it hit the country. The impact could have been worse if we had not been prepared.”
Preparing for storms is a way of life in Cuba, where the Atlantic hurricane season is an annual occurrence. With the knowledge that storms are coming each year from June to November, Government and UNDP initiatives have focused on practical measures to reduce risk and better withstand their impact. Results have been encouraging, since 1996 only 56 lives have been lost due to the impact of storms or hurricanes in the country. While any death is unnecessary, this number is relatively low considering the exposure and the number of earthquakes experienced.
Cuba’s signature preparedness initiative is the use of Risk Reduction Management Centres. Established by the Government and UNDP in 2005, the RRMCs are a tool for local governments to collect and manage information about local hazards, risks and vulnerabilities. This information is used in decision making to fortify and protect communities, such as by avoiding construction in areas historically impacted by storms and floods, and constructing protective walls.
Another aspect of the project is the establishment of early warning points in the most vulnerable communities. These EWPs are responsible for receiving and relaying disaster prevention and response information. EWPs have also been trained to serve as first responders when needed.
During Sandy, decision makers and EWPs maintained constant communication, keeping people apprised of the changing nature of the storm and providing critical information to first responders.
The cumulative results of these efforts has been a country that is much more resilient to disasters. To expand on the success, UNDP is working with the Government’s Civil Defense and partners throughout the region to expand the RRMC’s into other countries.
“Storms are part of life in the Caribbean, but we want disaster risk preparedness to be a part of life too,” notes Mesías. “With climate change extending the storm season and stronger storms, such as Hurricane Sandy, we have to keep being prepared.”
It’s been one year since Sandy and the recovery is still on-going. With support from the Government and UNDP, the people of Santiago de Cuba have rebuilt approximately 50 percent of the homes damaged during the storm.
UNDP has also embarked on a recovery programme in Cuba totaling US $6 million to help communities rebuild. Together with partners, the programme is helping with housing rehabilitation in Santiago de Cuba and Holguin; strengthening local government capacity for risk prevention and response; evaluating the damages and rebuilding urban centres; and supporting agricultural recovery.