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Up From NYC: A Broad’s Side View: Chaos in New Orleans, But Cuba Got It Right

09/02/2005 01:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chaos in New Orleans – But Cuba Got It Right

Cuba, yes, Cuba (I can just hear the right wing posters now …). The island nation is beset by hurricanes over and over again, and yet… no scenes like the revolting ones that are being played out right here in Third World, USA.

Just a couple of months ago, Cuba successfully evacuated 1.7 million of its people in the wake of Hurricane Dennis. Lots of right wing commentators and posters have claimed that “you can’t stop a hurricane,” and “it’s an act of God.” Well, you can prepare – and I actually was dumb enough to think that some of our taxes that are going to Homeland Security were being spent on emergency preparation – or what we so quaintly used to call “civil defense.” Wrong again!

So how come one of the smallest island nations of the world – with a mere fraction of our resources – can accomplish what we can’t?

The answer came in a number of very interesting email exchanges I’ve received. Ned Sublette, a New Orleans resident, who talked about the impacts of Katrina on the Gulf Coast on Air America’s Mike Molloy show this past Wednesday night, just spent most of a year doing research on music, popular culture and history of the area and its relationship to the rest of the Caribbean. He has been in touch with Nelson Valdes who, as Ned puts it in an email to his friend, Louis Head, is “a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about Cuba.” Here’s how Nelson says Cuba does it (I’m paraphrasing):

Civil defense is embedded in the community to begin with. People know ahead of time where they are to go. (just like in New Orleans, right?)

They (people assigned to civil defense) come to your door and knock, and tell you, “the evacuation is coming,” then they come back and tell you, “it’s now.”

If there’s no electricity, communication about what’s to be done is maintained by “runners” who fan out from a main headquarters to central locations.

The country's leaders go on TV and take charge. (They’re not on vacation!) But they are not only ones speaking in public. The TV weatherpeople are knowledgeable, and the population is well educated, in advance, about hurricanes.

People are not only evacuated; they know beforehand where they will go. And pickup and delivery of people is also arranged ahead of time. (Pickup and delivery -- of everybody – not just telling people to evacuate, many of whom don’t have the resources.)

Merely sticking people in a stadium is unthinkable in Cuba. Any shelters that are needed have medical personnel. Cuban doctors evacuate together with their neighborhood, and already know, for example, who needs insulin.

If there’s a need to evacuate to a countryside high school -- a last resort -- there are already dormitories there.

There are also veterinarians on hand, and they evacuate animals. They allow people to leave with items such as TV sets and refrigerators, so that people aren't reluctant to leave because they’re afraid their most needed items will be lost or stolen.

It’s all about “social capital” – having country-wide values that place all human life above all else – and way, way above the “bottom line.” Poor black Cubans aren’t left out or left behind. Our mighty country seems to have a short supply of social capital at the highest levels, and all the financial resources at our command could not -- or, more correctly, would not – be used to help our fellow Americans – mostly poor and black -- in New Orleans. And it’s not like there weren’t any warnings.

If there was any doubt before about how much race and class divide this country, those doubts have been washed away with New Orleans.

What we’re all waiting for now is for some of the more brave elected officials (where are you?) to stand up and demand the impeachment of George W. Bush.