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Round Table discussion on Hurricane Ivan

by Susan Hurlich

Havana, 10 September 2004

Last night there was an excellent "Mesa Redonda" (Round Table) discussion held in Cuba's television studios on Hurricane Ivan as well as what Cuba is doing to prepare for its arrival. Because it was so interesting as well as informative, I took detailed notes throughout and prepared a report. It's long, but it gives a good insight into the potential impact of Ivan on Cuba as well as how the Cuban Civil Defense system works and particularly the extent of integrated efforts among different ministries and structures.

A few introductory comments: Since Wednesday, we've not been having any of the blackouts which have become almost daily occurrences since the start of July. The reason is to facilitate keeping the population as informed as possible, as comparatively few have battery-run radios - and there's every anticipation that once Ivan hits, power may be out for some time.

Please note that in the report below, comments relating to "timing" were made before it was known that Ivan's movement has slowed down to 17 km/hr, and that the most recent anticipation is that it will be on Cuban territory Monday night rather than Sunday night. One of the key themes permeating last night's Round Table is that protecting human life is the most important concern, and that solidarity (neighbours helping neighbours) is one of the surest ways to minimize the potential danger of Ivan (or any other natural disaster).

Ivan is the strongest hurricane to be threatening Cuba in the last 50 years. Here, it's been given a variety of names: "Ivan the Terrible", "The Destroyer" and "The Monster" are three of the more common. At its present velocity, it's anticipate that once it's actually over the Cuban land mass, it could spend as long as ten to twelve hours "visiting". By comparison, Charley spent only one hour and 50 minutes on Cuban territory.

The most recent news on Ivan's progress comes from today's 1pm update from the Meterological Institute: with sustained winds of 230 km/hr, Ivan is moving at 15 km/hr towards the west-northwest. Since leaving Jamaica, its movement is tending a slight bit more to the west, meaning that for the first time, the various international projections that Cuba uses (as well as its own) show that its "main hit" might go from the west coast of Pinar del Rio through the two Havanas. But all this can change within the next several hours. At the moment, given its distance from Cuba, a slight shift of 20 km either to the east or the west can dramatically influence where landfall occurs in Cuba. But regardless of landfall, hurricane force winds with torrential rains extend outwards for a radius of some 76 km, and it's important to keep in mind that the impact of a hurricane is not limited to its eye.

There will be another Mesa Redonda tonight about Ivan. If it says "new things," I'll prepare a (short) report.

Warm regards to all, Susan Hurlich, Havana

MESA REDONDA (ROUND TABLE), 10 Sept 04, 8pm (Cuban TV)

Gladys Rubio (journalist) made a short documentary (which was shown on the air) about hurricanes in Cuba during the last 200 years. The worst hurricane to hit Cuba, to date, was on 9 November 1932, when some 3,000 people died in a hurricane that oscillated between category 4 and 5. The second worst hurricane was in Flora (1963) - before Cuba's Civil Defense structure was organized - which left over 1,000 deaths when it sat for 72 hours over the same area in Provincia Oriental (ie, at that time, this included the five present-day provinces of Eastern Cuba). During these three days, some 1,600 mm of rain fell. Another bad hurricane was in 1944, when a category 4 cyclone hit El Cajio on the southern coast of present-day Provincia Habana. More recently, Hurricane Michelle (Nov 2001), a category 4 hurricane, affected 45% of Cuban territory.

Dr. Jose Rubiera, head, Weather Forecast Department, Meterological Institute: The record for the greatest number of hurricanes in one year was 1933. It's important to remember that a hurricane is not a point nor is its impact limited just to the eye. It's important to know the distance measured from the eye covered by a hurricane's torrential rains. The five categories of hurricanes on the Saffir-Simpson Scale and the extent of damages they cover, as well as an example for Cuba, are:
  1. 118-153 km/hr minimum George (1998)
  2. 154-177 km/hr moderate Lili (1996)
  3. 178-209 km/hr extensive Charley (2004)
  4. 210-249 km/hr extreme Michelle (2001)
  5. >250 km/hr catastrophic ---

It's also important to understand that the force of a hurricane's wind structure is not doubled when one goes from, say, category 1 to category 2. Instead it's squared. For instance, a category 2 hurricane has wind forces that are four times stronger than a category 1 hurricane, and a category 4 hurricane has wind forces that are 16 times stronger than a category 1 hurricane.

Another fact about hurricane winds is that the winds that hit the upper part of high buildings can be greater on the Saffir-Simpson Scale than the winds that come in over the ground. For example, a category 4 hurricane can be striking a high building with category 5 winds.

The reason that floods, which are closely associated to hurricanes, do so much damage is because of the weight of ocean water. One cubic metre of ocean water weighs one and a half tons. This is why floods easily take down coastal buildings and move huge boats up on shore. For instance, in the 1944 hurricane that hit El Cajio, flood waters from the ocean penetrated up to ten km inland.

As for the rain that comes with hurricanes, the amount and force depends on the hurricane's velocity rather than intensity. The slower a hurricane goes, usually the more rain it has.

Hurricanes also have a tornado located inside them. You don't see it, but it's there.

We have to always keep in mind what our Comandante said on last night's Mesa Redonda: "Everything you can rebuild except for a life."

Many have asked where, exactly, is Ivan going to hit Cuba. At the moment, this is still difficult to say, as the slower a hurricane moves - and Ivan is moving quite slowly at the moment - the more instable its trajectory. This is why we say that the cone of Ivan's impact on Cuba goes from the eastern region of Pinar del Rio up through Villa Clara and Cienfuegos, as we can't yet say for certain where it will touch land. But this cone is the area that appears most threatened.

One very important reason that hurricanes are so frequent in this part of the world has to be with thermal energy, which is high in the Caribbean Sea. After it passes through Jamaica, Ivan enters a part of the Caribbean Sea which has a high level of thermal energy, which will contribute to a greater intensification of the hurricane. Even if the rain is cold when it hits the surface of the ocean, it doesn't have much of an effect as the depths of the water remain hot.

(NOTE: in an earlier hurricane update today, Rubiera explained a bit more about the characteristics of the Caribbean Sea that make it such a propitious place for hurricane development. First, hurricanes like ocean temperatures that are more than 26 degrees celsius. Here in the Caribbean, it's presently between 30-32 degrees celsius. Second, hurricane development is favoured by waters that are at least between 25 to 100 metres in depth. West of Jamaica, the Caribbean reaches depth some 200 metres. These two factors also help increase the intensity of a hurricane.)

The frequency of hurricanes also has cycles. Usually there's 25-30 years when they're very active, followed by 25-30 years when they're more inactive. Right after the triumph of the revolution (1959), Cuban entered a relatively quiet period for hurricanes. But in the 1990's this began to change, and now there are more hurricanes - and we can anticipate that this will continue. The phenomenon of climatic (global) warming also has the consequence that there will be more hurricanes worldwide.

Ivan is stronger than Michelle, which in more recent years has been the worst hurricane to hit Cuba. Ivan, in fact, might well be the strongest hurricane to affect Cuba since 1959. It's anticipated that by Sunday afternoon, Cuba will start feeling its direct affect (although there are already rains in many parts of eastern Cuba), and by Monday evening, it should be directly over Cuban territory. But this depends on its velocity. As for the damage factor, this depends not only on a hurricane's intensity, but on the amount of time it actually spends over a country.

On Sunday, the media will be dedicated the entire day to Ivan, as it will be much closer to Cuba.

Randy Alonso (Mesa Redonda moderator): Up to 8pm today (Friday), Ivan has been responsible for 30 deaths in the Caribbean: Grenada (17), Venezuela (5 deaths plus 9 still disappeared, among which are eight fishermen), Dominican Republic (4) and one each in Colombia, Barbados, Trinidad-Tobago and Jamaica. (note: the death in Jamaica is related to the Ivan but BEFORE it's actually hit the country!)

Lt.Col. Luis Angel Macareno Veliz, National Civil Defense: The Cuban people can trust in the Civil Defense structure that's in place throughout the country. We have representatives present in the Popular Councils and elsewhere. When Ivan was still a category 3 hurricane located some 1,700 km from Santiago de Cuba, we established the Informative Phase in Cuba. This was on Tuesday, 7 Sept. On Wednesday, 8 Sept, we established the Informative Phase in the four western provinces of Pinar del Rio, rural Havana, the capital and Matanzas, and began the Alert Phase from Camaguey east to Guantanamo. At this time, during the Alert Phase, we established our Hurricane Management Posts (puestos de direccion) at the provincial, municipal and local levels.

Up to noon today, over 650,000 people have been evacuated around the country. Life is the most important concern. The country can reconstruct damages, but protecting human life is the most important.

The three most important factors about a hurricane are rain, ocean (flooding) and wind. The most important factor for people is solidarity.

Most houses in Cuba can resist a category 3 hurricane. Individual home owners can do a lot to help protect their property (cleaning, securing, etc.)

Short documentary: The health infrastructure for helping during the time of a hurricane is in place. There are over 400,000 health personnel capable of providing first aid, if needed, some 903 operating rooms are prepared for emergencies and hospitals are prepared to receive people needing assistance. Patients who are not able to go home and who are in less secure medical facilities, have been moved to more secure locations. Basic medicines for evacuees are in place.

Randy Alonso: It's important for people to be aware of where the "safe places" are within their homes. In general, bathrooms and interior hallways are the more secure parts of residences. In high rises, the safer places are the lower floors. In the schools built with the "Plan Giron" method of construction (this is most of the larger educational centres), the safest part is the ground floor.

Evelio Saura Pedrol, President, Provincial Assembly, Havana Province: On 13 Aug, Charley hit with 180 km winds - and look at the damage it did. Ivan has much stronger winds.

Yesterday (9 Sept), we had a meeting of all presidents of the Popular Councils within the province. The objective was to discuss the measures that are being taken to prepare for Ivan. One of the key points we found is that in each location, there are different variants of measures that must be taken, and thus decisions must be very precise. Among the decisions we've taken are the following:

1) to stop all recuperation of houses which fell during Charley until after Ivan passes. Since Charley, we've repaired some 6,888 houses in the province.
2) this morning, at 8am, a "matutino especial" (special early morning) was held at all work sites, with all workers, to discuss hurricane-related measures to protect economic structures and activities.
3) at 8pm this evening, all CDRs in the province held meetings to discuss the measures being taken to prepare for Ivan's arrival

Miscellaneous: Livestock are being taken to areas which have a double pumping system for water. To date, over half a million animals around the country have been moved to more secure areas.

Cuban Institute of Civil Aeronautics: A short report said that all national flights will be suspended as of midnight, Sunday, 12 Sept, and that they'll be reestablished either Monday or Tuesday. International flights will also be cancelled as of Sunday and reinstalled either Monday afternoon or Tuesday.

Carlos Amador Silver, Vice-President, Provincial Administrative Council, City of Havana: Some 30% of housing in Havana is in bad condition. We're evacuating people from the upper floors in tall buildings to the lower floors. One of the examples of solidarity among Cubans is that, often, those who live on the lower floors take in individuals and/or families who live on the higher floors. We're also evacuating people who live near high tension towers which can fall. This need was made very clear during Hurricane Charley.

Concerning solidarity between people, during Charley, of the 66,700 evacuated in the city of Havana, some 38,000 were taken into the homes of family, friends or neighbours.

We're doing many things in the city to prepare for Ivan: cleaning out draining systems on the streets, advising people to clear their rooftops and balconies, etc.

Without discipline, organization and solidarity among the population, some of the measures that need to be taken can't be done. We need, and get, the active participation of the population.

Miscellaneous: -around the country, educational supplies - especially audio-visual equipment - are being stored and protected -in communities that are particularly vulnerable to flooding, families and entire neighbourhoods are loading their mattresses, TVs and other major household appliances onto government trucks to be taken away to safe shelters. After this, the people themselves go to evacuation centres

Juan Antonio Pruna Amer, Director-General, Union Electrica: We're preparing for Ivan while still recuperating from Charley. Among the things we're doing is to trim the trees that threaten electric wires and/or posts, do an inventory of generating plants, coordinate with the Ministry of Defense for helicopters, etc. with which to check out the communication network, reinforce high-tension towers that are more vulnerable, prepare generating capacity that uses other sources of energy besides electricity, etc. For some weeks, we've also been making our own transformers, towers and other things, and we plan to continue this process. Finally, we have over 3,500 linemen around the country who are ready to help where needed.

Alfredo Lopes, Minister of Fishing: Fishing activities have been suspended and, where necessary, we're taking boat motors and other fishing supplies to safe storage areas. The large refrigerators within the fishing sector have been "permanently" closed, so as to preserve the maximum cold in case we lose power.

Randy Alonso: In the event that power, and hence TV transmission capacity, is lost, we have other options such as radio. For instance, Cuba Vision (one of Cuba's four TV stations) transmits on the AM band, and new radio frequencies will also be opened so as to keep the people informed.

Engineer Juan Jose Gonzalez Escudera, Vice-President, National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH): For water supply and water runoff, there is integration between the different provinces. As well, hospitals are filling up their cisterns, and we're identifying power-generating equipment that does not use electricity, so that we can continue pumping water. We're also getting water trucks ready that come both under INRH as well as under other structures, plus identifying wells.

Randy Alonso: One of the few areas in which Ivan can benefit Cuba is water. Again, we want to underscore one of the most important factors: solidarity among all people.

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