Same storm, different responses
The storm called Isaac hit Haiti, Cuba and the United States. When it lashed Haiti and Cuba, meteorologists called it a storm; when it brushed Florida and came ashore in Louisiana, they called it a hurricane. No matter what it was called, it was dangerous.
Georges Ngwa Anuongong, spokesperson for the United Nations’ humanitarian mission in Haiti, reported Aug. 30 that Isaac had killed 24 people in that impoverished country, injured 42 and left more than 6,000 families without shelter. Major damage was done to Haiti’s agriculture. Most observers expect these figures will worsen.
By contrast, the Cuban press agency Granma reported: “There was virtually no social or economic damage in the country. Isaac entered Cuba via Guantánamo in the easternmost part of the island, in the morning of Saturday, Aug. 25 and exited in the evening of the same day from the northern coast of Holguín province.”
In the U.S., the AP reported two deaths from Isaac’s winds as it passed through Louisiana and Mississippi. But as flood waters receded in Plaquemines Parish, which stretches from New Orleans to the mouth of the Mississippi, more victims were discovered. Parish President Billy Nungesser said Isaac did more damage to his parish than Katrina did in 2005. At least seven people were killed in the storm in the U.S. — five in Louisiana and two in Mississippi. (Daily News, Sept. 3)
Haiti: ‘We don’t exist’
Nearly 400,000 people in Port-au-Prince are still living under tarps and in huts 32 months since Haiti’s disastrous 2011 earthquake. This means fatalities from Isaac could have been much higher. Most of the people living in the camps spent the night standing up, cradling their children, for fear that if they lay down they would be drowned.
One resident of “Camp Accra” told Haïti-Liberté: “The wind came and blew away our tarp. We spent the night in the rain. All of our things got wet. We didn’t sleep. We didn’t see any authorities. They left us here to die. We live amidst garbage. We don’t have security; all the time criminals steal our things, or rape us. The cholera that Minustah [the U.N. occupation force] brought is killing people in the camp since it started raining. Someone died here [of cholera] already last week. The way we see it, we don’t exist in the eyes of Haitian authorities.” (Aug. 29)
Besides urging people to tape their windows — hard to do if you live in a tent — and to stock up — also hard to do if you are poor — the government told people to be prepared to evacuate to suitable shelters. About 15,000 people — less than 4 percent of the people in the camps — actually made it to shelters in churches and schools. According to videos posted by some NGOs, most of the people in the camps, who live without electricity, didn’t know Isaac was coming.
When residents of Canapé Vert tried to mobilize on Aug. 25 to make their voices heard, the cops arrested nine of them for the crime of calling on the Haitian state to protect them against the effects of Isaac.
All electric power was lost in Port-au-Prince and was being restored one neighborhood at a time.
The U.S., through the U.N., has spent billions in Haiti for its “stabilization,” which is just a cover for keeping the situation stable for corporate and strategic interests. It extols the government of Michel Martelly as democratic and the situation in Haiti as “improving,” even as cholera sickens hundreds of thousands and hundreds of thousands more are denied even a minimally adequate existence.
Cuba: Infrastructure worked
Cuba has much experience in confronting meteorological events. The National Civil Defense chief of staff, Ramón Pardo Guerra, said, “The country has a comprehensive infrastructure created for these events and so — if we use it properly — as has been reported in each territory, nobody is at risk.”
There were power outages, and some roofs were lost due to the wind. Flooding caused some damage and some towns were cut off for a time. But no one died, and those most at risk were evacuated. Fox News reported that a number of Cuban tourists were encouraged to go home.
The whole effort was designed to minimize the loss of life and damage to the economy. It succeeded.
United States: flooding and deaths
Since Hurricane Katrina, the federal government has spent $14 billion improving the levee system protecting New Orleans. Even though the system is not complete, New Orleans escaped relatively unscathed. Power was out for most of the city and as of Sept. 3 still has not been completely restored. By some measures, even though Isaac was much less powerful than Katrina in 2005, the storm surge was nearly equivalent. Some streets were flooded but no major flooding was reported — in New Orleans.
There were compelling economic reasons for the U.S. government to spend so much money. As a port, New Orleans ranks first in the U.S. based on volume of cargo handled and 13th largest based on the value of cargo. Since it is served by six major railroads, it is a low-cost distribution hub.
Losing New Orleans as a port would be a major blow to the whole U.S. economy, especially to the parts, like agriculture, that depend on the cheap transport of bulk goods.
However, outside of New Orleans, there was major flooding. Even six days after the storm, Plaquemines Parish is flooded. Its east bank is cupped between federal levees along the Mississippi and local levees on the Gulf. Since the local levees were overtopped, a lot of water remains. Similar problems are occurring on its west bank.
While residents of Plaquemines were encouraged to evacuate, and buses were provided by the parish for the poor, there doesn’t appear to have been any major mandatory evacuation. The cops organized some large convoys of cars going north out of the flood zone. A large number of people had to be rescued.
Ivy Parker, a militant in the Solidarity Coalition for Katrina & Rita Survivors, pointed out to Workers World: “Living close to the Mississippi River can never be completely safe. The river in a storm can do unexpected things — you have to be prepared.”
Haiti is the poorest capitalist country in the Western Hemisphere and the U.S. is the richest. Both relied on voluntary action by individuals to avoid the dangers of Isaac. In the U.S., most individuals had the resources needed, though not all. In Haiti, most people didn’t have the resources and many more died.
In Cuba, the response, could be more organized since Cuba’s socialist society rests on solidarity.