International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001

Disaster in the Region


Relying on the Mass Media to Issue
Early Warnings of Tropical Cyclones:
Experiences of the National Forecasting Center of Cuba

Dr. José Rubiera, Director National Forecasting Center
Cuban Meteorological Institute

Due to its location in the Caribbean, tropical cyclones threaten Cuba every hurricane season (between 1 June and 30 November). Over the past few years, several tropical storms have hit the country, including some strong enough to be classified as hurricanes. However, no direct loss of life has occurred as a result, and material losses have been minimized thanks to the adoption of the necessary prevention and mitigation measures, particularly the early warning system used by the National Forecasting Center and the Civil Defense System with the invaluable collaboration of the mass media.

The use of radio and television, in particular, has helped to educate the population on the need for disaster prevention and emergency preparedness. Before the start of the hurricane season, and right until the very end, the Forecasting Center staff informs the public about these tropical systems, the hazards they convey, and what to do to remain well informed and protected. The experts also do this face-to-face by giving talks in schools, farms, offices, and factories. They also brief government and civil defense officials, so that decision-makers can interpret accurately the meteorological information and forecasts they receive. Before every season, Civil Defense carries out an exercise code-named “Meteor”, with the participation not only of specialists but also of the general population—which provides another opportunity for public education in disaster reduction.
There is a substantial difference between the meteorological information transmitted by radio and television on an everyday basis and the information that is broadcast when there is a threat. In the first case, the meteorologist talks from the studio; in the second, the information is transmitted directly from the National Forecasting Center, amid computers, satellite and radar images, and the busy staff. The latest forecasts about the trajectory and intensity of the hurricane, the impact it could have, and the hazards that threaten specific communities, are passed on as soon as the information is available. This change of venue acts like a conditioned reflex that makes the population pay attention and remain receptive to the ensuing warnings. Civil Defense also broadcasts live from its headquarters information about protection and evacuation measures, in close coordination with the National Forecasting Center so that the population does not receive conflicting messages.

The way the meteorologists present the information is also important. When there is a hurricane, people often worry only about the current location of the eye of the hurricane, a potentially fatal error since hurricane winds can have a radius of 150 to 200 Km, and the intense rains that accompany them can reach as far as 600 to 800 Km away from the center (see Figure 1).

Forecasts, although they have improved substantially in the past 30 years, are still far from infallible. Over a 24-hour period, for instance, average errors can be in the order of 180 Km, while a 72-hour forecast can be wrong by as much as 600 Km. These uncertainties should be reflected in the information, which must be updated constantly.

One of the ways in which areas at risk can be presented on television and the print media is shown in Figure 2. These are real forecasts presented on television in September 1998, when hurricane Georges was threatening the island. The illustration shows “cones of probability” or danger for the next 72 hours. It is evident that any location within the cone must take precautions. In part (a) of the Figure, it can be seen that, although in 72 hours the cone was not expected to reach the eastern part of Cuba, that area of the country was in the direction in which the cone was moving, so there were potential hazards that were reported by television and radio. Part (b) of the Figure shows the situation 24 hours later, when the eastern region of Cuba already lay within the 72-hour cone of probability.

Figure. 1 Graphic representation of predictions from TV and the press

The result of all these efforts is that the government, Civil Defense, and the population in general can make well-informed decisions to protect life and property. There is no room for rumors to sprout, since all are aware of their situation and the choices they have. This explains the excellent results obtained in recent years, particularly the fact that not a single human life has been lost.