August 21, 2009
By MARC LACEY
MEXICO CITY — The first tropical storms of the season have begun raging across the Atlantic, bringing with them all manner of panic and potential destruction — and, behind the scenes, a little boost in United States-Cuba relations.
The gusty winds, heavy rains and ocean swells that hurricanes produce do not know the difference between Guantánamo and Galveston, which has made the weather one of the few topics on which the United States and Cuban governments regularly engage.
“We’ve had a close working relationship in regard to tropical cyclones that goes back to the ’70s and ’80s,” said Max Mayfield, who retired in 2007 after seven years as director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “Any storm that goes toward Florida goes over Cuba, so we need their observations. And they need our data from the aircraft.”
With coastal communities in both countries vulnerable, meteorology could bring the longtime adversaries closer together, especially with the policy of increased engagement pushed by President Obama, experts argue. Wayne Smith, a former American diplomat in Havana who is now a fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, has brought an array of American officials to Cuba in recent years to look at how Cuban disaster preparedness programs manage to keep the number of hurricane deaths on the island so low.
Among those who made the trip last month were Russel Honoré, a retired lieutenant general who was the commander of the military’s Hurricane Katrina task force; Robert Turner, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East; and Stewart Simonson, assistant secretary for emergency preparedness in the Department of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration.
Ivor van Heerden, a hurricane expert at Louisiana State University who visited Cuba last year, contends that American policies should be loosened to allow a transfer of technology to Cuba to help bolster its oceanographic and weather data collection. The United States could learn from Cuba’s evacuation plans, post-disaster medical support and citizen disaster education programs, he said.
“No matter how much our government may decry the Cuban regime, it is a fact that they are very successful in orchestrating evacuations and meeting the public health and medical needs of their population during disasters,” Mr. van Heerden wrote in a paper several months ago for the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based group that wants to normalize relations with Cuba.
Cubans are taught about hurricanes in elementary school, and every block has a captain whose job it is to help evacuate people and relocate their possessions to safe locations. Evacuations are compulsory in Cuba, which keeps casualties low but also highlights the government’s control over most aspects of people’s lives. Those same captains also keep tabs on neighbors’ loyalty to the government.
“We have a different form of government in the United States,” Lyda Ann Thomas, the mayor of Galveston, Tex., told reporters during a visit to Cuba in April to examine Cuba’s preparedness plans. “When we call for a mandatory evacuation and citizens are warned they may be left without water and resources, they still have the right to tell their government they do not wish to leave their homes.”
For years, the Cubans have allowed American government “hurricane hunter” planes to enter their airspace to measure storms from the air. Even during Mr. Bush’s presidency, when the trade embargo between the countries was tightened, American and Cuban government meteorologists were cooperating when it came to storms.
While one part of the United States Commerce Department was in charge of enforcing the embargo — fining those who visited Cuba illegally or purchased outlawed Cuban cigars — another part of it was trading information and engaging in training exercises with the Cubans on storms.
Tensions do still arise. The two governments have turned down hurricane aid from each other, and when advocacy groups held a United States-Cuba hurricane summit meeting in Mexico in 2007, an American government meteorologist said he received a call from the State Department as he was heading there ordering him not to attend.
“The State Department called me at the airport and said, ‘You’re not allowed to go to the meeting,’ ” said Lixion Avila, a Cuban-born hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center. “I told them that we meet Cuban meteorologists regularly.”
Still, Cuban hurricane experts participate in the annual training exercises at the hurricane center in Miami. “It’s not as simple as with Jamaica when it comes to visas, but we work together,” Mr. Avila said.
Mr. Mayfield, who is now a hurricane specialist for a Miami television station, said he understood those who were pushing for greater engagement with Cuba and those who considered the government so abhorrent that isolation was the only acceptable approach. “I have a lot of Cuban friends whose parents were taken off to prison by the military,” he said. “I understand their views, but it seems there are some areas where it makes sense to talk.”
Mr. Mayfield said his counterpart at Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology, José Rubiera, had the advantage of having his own government television station to reach the population in advance of approaching storms. “It’s easier if you have a government-run television station,” Mr. Mayfield said. “He could get the message out anytime he wanted to. There were times I would have liked to have had that platform.”
Mr. Avila, whose mother lives in Cuba, sees his work with Cuban meteorologists as apolitical. “I’m trained to save lives and it doesn’t matter if they are Cuban, Chinese or American lives I’m saving by forecasting storms,” he said.
But he said the evacuation approach used in his birthplace would not necessarily work for his adopted home.
“There, they put everyone in a truck and move them,” Mr. Avila said. “You can’t do that in the U.S.”
But some things are more transferable. Mr. Turner, the Louisiana flood official who visited Cuba last month, said he was impressed with the islandwide disaster drills and the regular inspections of homes to determine their ability to withstand strong winds.
“There are probably lessons that can be learned on both sides,” he said. LINK