Photo: Granma

The “Ejercicio Meteoro” (Meteoro Exercise) held each year is an example of the resolve of the Cuban government to implement measures to protect, as far as possible, people’s lives, property and the resources of the national economy from disaster situations, and has become a key factor in national efforts in this field over the last three decades.

Even during the most difficult years of the special period, the drill has been held annually without fail since 1986, indicating the high level of priority of preparing the country to face damages caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, heavy rainfall, extreme droughts, coastal flooding, epidemics, technological accidents, fires, animal disease outbreaks, oil spills and other disasters, demonstrated by the highest authorities of the Party and the state.

Granma spoke with Lieutenant Colonel Wilfredo Cobas Dávila, head of operations for the National Civil Defense General Staff (EMNDC), to discuss the preparedness exercise. Photo: Jose M. Correa

In the lead up to the 2016 edition to be held May 14-15, Granma spoke with Lieutenant Colonel Wilfredo Cobas Dávila, head of operations for the National Civil Defense General Staff (EMNDC), regarding the history and contributions of this unique exercise, approaching its 30th anniversary.

In what context and why did the Meteoro Exercise arise?

In the early years of the Revolution, the Civil Defense System focused its main efforts on preparing the population for a possible external military aggression, sabotage and other counterrevolutionary actions. Later on, based on the bitter experiences in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Flora in 1963, the training of the people to confront disaster events that impacted the country, especially natural disasters, was also incorporated.

The origins of the Meteoro Exercise date back to 1985, when the impact of Hurricane Kate on November 19 revealed a series of deficiencies related to the functioning of leading bodies, and the preparation of the population in following established procedures during disaster situations.

Together, specialists from the National Civil Defense General Staff and other institutions conducted a thorough analysis that provided the basis for the country's leadership to develop a national preparedness exercise, aimed at overcoming the identified weaknesses.

As such, in 1986 the first Meteoro Exercise took place under the title of “Popular Exercise of Measures in the Case of Disaster”, an activity that qualitatively contributed to the organization of the Civil Defense System.

How has the Exercise evolved, in terms of the issues addressed, and what activities are undertaken?

During the first stage, it was chiefly dedicated to training, in order to face the hurricane season and the population participated in the selected areas of defense in municipalities together with leading bodies at all levels, and it included the response actions for such an event.

By the 1990s, the objectives of the exercise were extended to disaster risks relevant to our country, and it was undertaken during a weekend in May, prior to the start of the hurricane season.

The first day is aimed at preparing the leading agencies and the clarification of plans for disaster risk reduction, which take into account the particular circumstances of each territory and experiences following the impact of disaster events.

Also evaluated are the objectivity of the measures of the disaster reduction cycle, the role and effectiveness of monitoring institutions, and the functioning of early warning systems.

Activities on the second day provide for the participation of workers and the population in carrying out practical actions, aimed at preparing the population living in risk areas and zones close to facilities handling hazardous substances, and other complex scenarios, emphasizing codes of conduct and procedures in disaster situations.

Also carried out are various activities aimed at reducing vulnerabilities in order to deal with natural, technological and health disasters in the best conditions; including hygiene and sanitation efforts in cities and neighborhoods, the pruning of trees, cleaning rivers, ditches, canals, sewers and drains, which has allowed for the incorporation of all spheres of society and communities in organizing disaster risk reduction.

What is the importance of the participation of the Armed Forces and other institutions to the Meteoro Exercise?

From the beginning, the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry have played a leading role, together with political and mass organizations and the Cuban National Red Cross Society.

Drills by the country’s Communications System, and within this, the active participation of the National Network of the Federation of Amateur Radio Enthusiasts, an alternative of great value in disaster situations, has been fundamental, contributing to the perfecting of the Warning and Population Orientation System.

It is likewise essential to mention the permanent support provided by various scientific institutions and state bodies closely linked to disaster response, such as the Institute of Meteorology, the National Center for Seismological Research (CENAIS), the Institute of Plant Protection, the National Center for Protected Areas and the National Institute of Water Resources.

At all times, wide informative coverage has been provided by national, provincial and municipal communications media, on the basic areas of interest to governing bodies and the general population, according to the particularities of each territory or entity.

What, in your opinion, are the main results of the Exercise over these past thirty years?

Firstly, to have created a national culture as regards disaster risk reduction and perfected the organization of civil defense measures. This has meant the country is today in better conditions to deal with any of the mentioned risks, and reduce to a minimum the loss of life and material damages these may cause.

The emphasis on prevention is undoubtedly a primary aspect, especially in recent years, when the need for this to become habitual behavior has been emphasized, something that is still a pending task for the Cuban Civil Defense System.

It is worth reiterating that the completion of the Meteoro Exercise each year reaffims the political will of the Cuban state and government to spare no resource to preserve people’s lives and property, and, in parallel, social infrastructure, the economy and natural resources, in the face of the growing disaster risk challenges and the consequences of climate change.

What are the priorities of the 2016 Meteoro Exercise?

Beyond further strengthening the country's capacity in dealing with powerful earthquakes, hurricanes, extreme drought, and health disasters, special attention will be paid to hygiene and sanitation efforts in order to reduce vulnerabilities still present in the vector control struggle, mainly focused on increasingly reducing infestation rates of Aedes mosquitoes.

This is key to reducing suspected cases of dengue fever and preventing the emergence and autochthonous transmission of cases of chikungunya and the Zika virus. Hence one of the central objectives is to increase risk awareness among the population and for this to ensure daily practices that can sustain this struggle.