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Hurricane Isaac Highlights Vulnerabilities in the Caribbean

Havana also got wet. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Havana also got wet. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA, Aug 30 2012 (IPS) - The impact of Hurricane Isaac as it made its way through the Caribbean region highlighted both the fragility of some countries in the face of extreme meteorological events, which are expected to become more and more intense, and the different strategies adopted to mitigate the risk of disasters.

Isaac made landfall twice in the southeast U.S. state of Louisiana as a category 1 storm, almost 600 km wide, with top sustained winds up to 130 km an hour. Its slow motion over land – it was travelling at 13 km per hour – raised concerns that it could take a while to blow over.

Authorities in the U.S. reported that the strong winds and torrential rains had overtopped a levee outside New Orleans, and led to power outages affecting some 450,000 homes. But the hurricane was downgraded Wednesday to a tropical storm.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the storm could dump more than 400 mm of rain because of how slow it was moving. “It is quite ironic that we have a hurricane threatening us on the seventh anniversary of Katrina,” he added.

Isaac was the first test of the improved levees, rebuilt since the tragedy caused by Katrina, a category 3 hurricane that left 1,800 people dead and 3,000 missing and caused billions of dollars in damages. Most of the deaths occurred after the dikes around the city failed, flooding the city.

Landrieu said the city’s flood defences, a system of walls, floodgates, levees and pumps upgraded since 2005 at a cost of 14.5 billion dollars, had withstood the onslaught.

In Cuba, Isaac, the ninth named storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season (June to November), provided abundant water for the country’s thirsty reservoirs, did not claim any lives, and cause little material damage.

But in impoverished Haiti, 19 people were killed and six are missing.

Haiti has not yet recovered from the devastating earthquake of 2010, and around 400,000 people are still living in tent cities and camps. The country’s civil protection office reported that 5,000 people were evacuated and taken to shelters.

About 3,000 of those evacuated were in Port-au-Prince. The authorities are particularly concerned that the flooding could cause a resurgence of the cholera epidemic, which since October 2010 has cost the lives of more than 7,500 people in Haiti.

The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, reported that five people had drowned as rivers overflowed their banks, and nearly 26,000 people were evacuated, 5,000 dwellings were damaged, and 116 villages and communities were isolated.

The Ozama River, which tends to flood at times of heavy rainfall, flooded some 2,500 makeshift shacks built along the river.

One of the big challenges faced in the Dominican Republic is the proliferation of slums along rivers, which puts thousands of families at risk during extreme events like torrential rains, tropical storms or hurricanes.

The areas with the largest number of families affected are the slums in Santo Domingo and the border region, says a report sent to IPS by World Vision, a U.S.-based Christian relief, development and advocacy organisation, which has an office in Jimaní, in the southwest of the Dominican Republic.

Cuba prepared for the storm

Isaac, which began forming on Aug. 21 in the Atlantic Ocean, caused heavy rain, winds,
coastal storm surges, flooding and blackouts in the eastern Caribbean. After bashing Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, it touched land in Cuba on Aug. 25 in Maisí, a town in the province of Guantánamo at the eastern tip of Cuba.

Five hours later, Isaac headed back out to sea near Guardalavaca beach in the northern part of the eastern province of Holguín, 743 km from Havana.

The brunt of the storm was felt in Baracoa, a city in Guantánamo province 929 km southeast of Havana, where it affected electricity and phone services, caused flooding, and damaged 89 homes, 19 of which were completely destroyed.

But there was a silver living: official reports indicate that the torrential rains helped fill reservoirs in the eastern part of the country, some of which were far below normal level.

In Santiago de Cuba, 847 km southeast of Havana, the 11 reservoirs now have 71 million cubic metres of water. They are 66 percent full, compared to 57 percent prior to the storm.

Provinces of central and western Cuba also received heavy rainfall, to the point that some reservoirs had to open their gates to release excess water. The reservoirs are indispensable for storing water reserves during periods of drought in this Caribbean island nation, which does not have significant sources of water.

With its internationally renowned disaster management system, which involves the entire population, from the highest levels of government to every rural and urban community, Cuba has managed to reduce the loss of human lives to a minimum, even during storms of the intensity of Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma, which caused 10 billion dollars in economic losses in a single season, in 2008.

Cuba’s disaster risk prevention system includes an early warning service, evacuation of all at-risk people, the protection of economic resources with an emphasis on food, and the immediate start of the recovery phase in the wake of a disaster.

José Rubiera, head of the Meteorology Institute’s Forecast Centre, said Cuba is the safest country in the region during hurricanes.

“That is the result of years of work focused on adapting disaster prevention, preparedness and response to the new conditions emerging as a result of the increase in hurricane activity in this area, which could be a forerunner of what could happen as a result of climate change, which to a certain extent is already being felt,” Rubiera told IPS.

 
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