U.S. News

Texas mayor learns from Cuba hurricane experience

HAVANA (Reuters) - More than 100 years too late, Galveston, Texas, finally paid attention to Cuba’s knowledge of hurricanes.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said on Saturday at the end of a three-day visit to the Caribbean island she had learned much about how to better prepare and deal with storms such as Hurricane Ike, which battered both Cuba and the Texas city last September.

Both places suffered extensive damage from the major storm, but at least 20 people died in Galveston County, compared to seven in Cuba.

Thomas, in a news conference, said she would take back a long list of suggested improvements including better monitoring of people with health problems and ways to increase confidence that property would be protected after an evacuation.

“Our citizens don’t always believe our police or national guard will do such a good job of protection, so they stay (in their homes) and run the risk of losing their lives,” she said.

Had U.S. weather officials heeded Cuban warnings, the island city would have been better served in 1900, she said, when a massive hurricane similar to Ike struck Cuba, then headed across the Gulf of Mexico toward Galveston.

In those days before satellites and radar, Cuba forecasters warned the storm was going toward Texas, but U.S. experts disagreed, saying it would veer northeast to the mid-Atlantic coast.

On September 8, 1900, the hurricane struck Galveston with 135 mile per hour (217 kpm) winds and a massive storm surge, leading to the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, the full extent of which has never been determined.

“The (United States) weather bureau chose to ignore the warning, and 6,000 to 10,000 people lost their lives,” Thomas said.

Cuba prides itself on suffering few hurricane deaths, which Havana portrays as evidence of its concern for its people.

Thomas said not everything she learned in Cuba can be applied to the United States.

In Cuba, storm evacuations are compulsory, a major reason few people are killed in storms.

“We have a different form of government in the United States,” Thomas said. “When we call for a mandatory evacuation and citizens are warned they may be left without water, medical care and resources, (but) they still have the right to tell their government they do not wish to leave their homes.”

She was visiting Cuba under the auspices of the Washington-based Center for International Policy, which works to improve U.S.-Cuba relations by fostering contacts between the long-hostile countries.

“Our visit simply points up the fact that we can only gain through dialogue,” said Wayne Smith, director of the center’s Cuba program, and former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

“One way to emphasize the need for dialogue is to focus on subjects that bring us together,” he said.

Editing by Patricia Zengerle