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New Orleans looks for lessons from Cuba

Mayor Ray Nagin and a big entourage of Louisiana state and local officials are en route to Cuba today for a six-day trip to study the communist island's tightly-run hurricane preparedness system, according to the mayor's office.

The trip comes less than 24 hours after President Obama's visit to New Orleans, and whether or not he's carrying a message from the White House, it doesn't appear that U.S.-Cuba diplomacy is the purpose of the visit. Nagin's team, which includes the city's top fire, police, airport and health officials, will reportedly meet with counterparts from Cuban emergency management programs, as well as Cuba's Foreign Ministry and Culture Ministry.

There's been a lot of U.S. interest in Cuba's emergency management programs since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. While the island is frequently slammed by hurricanes, its official death tolls tend to be far below those of neighboring countries, mostly thanks to a highly-disciplined evacuation system that will go block-by-block to account for every resident. That success was held up in stark contrast to the humanitarian and logistical disaster of Katrina.

Cuba's approach probably would have saved a lot of lives in New Orleans if it had been in place when Katrina struck the city in 2005. But it's questionable whether the no-nonsense model would work in a major U.S. city, where stubborn homeowners might not be so willing to accept of the kind of stern mandatory evacuation policies that minimize loss of life here.