Ike Goes to Gitmo

What happens to the detainees when a hurricane hits Guantanamo Bay?

Navy officials at Guantanamo Bay

Hurricane Ike—which is expected to hit Texas on Friday or Saturday—has already taken its toll on Cuba, reportedly killing four people and damaging more than 200,000 homes. Like Hurricane Gustav two weeks ago, Ike also hit the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. What happens to detainees at Gitmo when a hurricane hits?

Unless it gets really bad, they stay put. In the words of a camp spokesman, “safe and humane care and custody” of detainees—a stated mission of the camp’s commanders—requires protecting them from “the elements of inclement weather.” The military maintains that the facilities currently housing the prisoners are capable of withstanding anything up to a Category 2 hurricane, according to the Miami Herald. As early as February 2002, camp officials also said that in the event of a catastrophic storm, detainees could be housed temporarily in old ammunition bunkers. (In 1994—when the base was housing thousands of Cuban refugees—the Department of Defense said bunkers at Guantanamo could hold as many as 14,000 people.)

That’s not to say it’s business as usual at Guantanamo during a hurricane. Aside from the detainees, regular residents of the base—mostly military personnel, contractors, and their families—follow a weather warning system that ranges in severity from Readiness Condition V (which is in effect for the entire hurricane season and requires that residents be generally prepared) to Readiness Condition I (which comes into play when a severe storm is less than 12 hours away). During the approach of Ike, the high-alert Condition I applied—all base leave and liberty were canceled, and nonessential personnel had to stay at home or take cover in hurricane shelters. (Most homes at the base are hurricane-resistant, but residents can take shelter in large buildings like the gym, elementary school, or bowling alley.) On Sunday, the hurricane preparations also meant a planned outdoor showing of Tropic Thunder was canceled, as the space was used to park bulldozers and other heavy machinery instead.

While Cuba is often hit by hurricanes, Guantanamo has never suffered extensive damage from storms; one possible reason is that the nearby island of Hispaniola acts as a buffer. By contrast, the treatment of prisoners during hurricanes has been far more controversial in Louisiana. In 2005, inmates from Orleans Parish Prison were not evacuated as Hurricane Katrina approached. As a result, prisoners were allegedly left in their cells as they flooded, many without food or clean water. (In some cases, the inmates weren’t removed for as many as five days.) Orleans Parish used a different approach on the eve of Hurricane Gustav last month: Two thousand one hundred prisoners were bused to facilities located farther inland, and 171 inmates who had been either sentenced or were awaiting trial on nonviolent municipal charges were released. (Those who hadn’t yet been tried were still required to report to court after the storm.)

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Explainer thanks Navy Petty Officer Richard Lamb and Army Maj. Rick Morehouse.