In the face of Hurricane Matthew, disaster risk reduction saves lives in Cuba

A country prone to natural hazards has started incorporating disaster risk reduction into its school curriculum

By Marta López Fesser
Teens from a secondary school in Santiago de Cuba explain their school's evacuation plan.
UNICEF Cuba/2016/López Fesser
06 December 2016

Children are leading the way for a society rooted in preparedness and resilience.

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba, 6 December 2016 – Four years ago, Hurricane Sandy marked many of the children, teachers and families of Cuba for life. Some of them lost everything. Many feared they would relive the experience when Hurricane Matthew – one of the most damaging weather events of 2016 – struck in early October.

In the face of this threat, Cuba’s Civil Defence evacuated more than one million people in a monumental effort of coordination and protection. And although the affected municipalities of Guantánamo and Holguín provinces awoke on 5 October to inevitable yet devastating destruction, they did not have to lament any human loss. This was in part because, in the years following Hurricane Sandy, the Government led an ongoing effort to incorporate disaster risk reduction into schools.

Teaching preparedness

Cuba is at permanent risk of natural hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes and droughts, and is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The country’s public policies therefore prioritize disaster risk reduction and environmental education, with a special focus on creating a culture of prevention among its youngest citizens.

Children sit at their desks in a rural pre-school classroom.
UNICEF Cuba/2016/López Fesser
Children sit at their desks in a rural pre-school classroom. The Cuban curriculum incorporates theoretical and practical knowledge about disaster risk reduction in all grade levels.

Throughout all levels of education up to college, the Cuban curriculum incorporates theoretical and practical knowledge about Civil Defence and natural, technological and health risks. Students are trained on the concepts of prevention, preparedness and recovery in disaster situations, so that when disaster strikes, they can act accordingly. Additionally, all students are involved in the Explorers, a school organization that prepares them for life outdoors.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, UNICEF has been working for three years with communities in the central and eastern provinces that are particularly vulnerable to these catastrophes. More than 14,000 children and adolescents from 128 schools have participated in this programme to strengthen their capacity to deal with disasters. Meteorological briefing notes, performing arts, and physics problem sets on extreme weather events are just some of the methods used to incorporate preparedness into school curriculums.

As part of the learning process, students do exploratory visits that allow them to identify the risks that surround their school and community, and then work collaboratively creating risk maps and evacuation plans. “Knowing the risks that surround us and our evacuation map prepares us for life,” says José Antonio, 10, a student of the Esteban Caballero Estrada School, located in the intricate green mountains of Tercer Frente, Santiago de Cuba.

In the children’s circle ‘Little Friends of Vilma Espin’, children between 4 and 6 years old learn about disasters through theatre, routines and themed toys such as emergency means of transportation. “It’s a seismic area, we are close to the sea. It's good that children get familiarized from early age,” says Xiomara, 64, the grandmother of a student.

Students with disabilities also participate in preparedness training. “The contents are the same for all, the drill is the same for all. My students assimilate things better in a more practical and less theoretical way,” says Yurisan Rivas, a teacher at the 18 April Joint School Centre. The involvement and commitment of teachers is the key, and since 2013, almost 2,000 teachers have participated in this project through workshops of methodological guidelines.

Children present the four phases of preparedness for a tropical cyclone.
UNICEF Cuba/2016/López Fesser
Children present the four phases of preparedness for a tropical cyclone. Performing arts is one of the methods used to incorporate preparedness into school curriculums.
Focus on recovery

Even though it is the last stage of disaster risk reduction, recovery receives no less attention. The schools have encouraged children’s and teachers’ interest in local botanical knowledge and its medical uses following disasters. In the quarries of the schools it is common to see students taking care of a variety of herbs and plants whose benefits they know well.

“After a disaster, pharmacies may be closed or undersupplied. If we know that guava has lots of vitamin C and can cure a family member’s cold, that taking linden tea calms us if we are very nervous, or that sage can heal wounds, all this will make us more resilient,” says a group of teenagers in Celia Sánchez Manduley high school.

The challenge this ongoing project now faces is taking the proposal outside of the school to the community and its members. After identifying the local risks, which range from breeding grounds for mosquitoes or contaminated water to coastal flooding or earthquakes, the project seeks to have students engage with their families to find the solutions within their reach. The students’ involvement in decision-making is key to the sustainability of the project.

Post-Matthew response

Although Cuba has become an international model for disaster risk reduction, Hurricane Matthew’s extensive destruction has transformed the daily life of the affected communities. Forty days after the hurricane struck the east of Cuba, 11 schools, 5 doctors and a polyclinic welcomed hundreds of victims in Baracoa, including children between 0 and 14 years old, pregnant women and people with disabilities. More than 39,000 houses were affected in the hardest hit municipalities in the province of Guantánamo. A total of 667 educational centres in eight municipalities of Guantánamo and Holguín provinces were damaged or destroyed, and for many children and adolescents, school now takes place in improvised spaces such as private homes and community centres.

UNICEF is supporting the Government’s emergency response in the four most affected municipalities of Guantánamo: Baracoa, Maisí, Imias and San Antonio de el Sur. Its support focuses on water and sanitation, as well as the immediate return of children and adolescents to educational activities in safe and protective learning spaces.