Natural disasters are the essence of the sublime: we can’t take our eyes off the unbridled and spectacular wrath of Mother Nature, even with the ugly knowledge of how deadly it is. We fixate upon the stories of families losing everything, the videos of the destruction and the rising death tolls. And then, just as suddenly as it happened, we’ve moved on to the next thing.
Arguably, the period that comes in the aftermath of disasters is the most crucial. Yet the disaster relief phase and its effects are often overlooked. (1) For countries in disaster-prone zones, the next catastrophe isn’t an “if” but “when”. Therefore, time between each disaster is valuable, and should be used to recover from and brace for the next occurrence. There are countries like Japan, which has experienced 414 earthquakes (with a magnitude of at least 1.5) within the past year, (2) that have become adept at reconstruction. (3) However, for others like Haiti, the effects of the earthquake 7 years ago are still very visible today. (4)
So what is left after the winds calm and the earth stops shaking? It is commonly said that the complete destruction of a city or country in the wake of a disaster provides a blank slate. (5) With statements like “Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth”,(6) there is a sense that disasters can be an impetus for positive change. Logically, this makes sense. Old structures are knocked down and have to be rebuilt — obviously they should be built to be sturdier than before. For instance, in Japan, rebuilding entails using better materials, following more stringent building codes and preparing more disaster-proof shelters.(7) Hence the popularity of the phrase “build back better” in disaster relief.
The reality is that “build back better” does not make the people who are most affected better off. For poor countries struck by disaster, the only people who benefit from the recovery process are the elites, the foreign contractors and the banks who issue loans.(8) Recently, Puerto Rico called out bankers who tried to offer them unreasonably expensive loans, accusing them of attempting to profit off the hurricanes “at the expense of the people of Puerto Rico”.(9)
When we think about natural disasters, we immediately think of geological fault lines. But often, social fault lines matter more, in that they reveal the true impact of the disasters, and affect the ensuing rebuilding process. Natural disasters expose the fractured foundations on which the society was built, especially the racial and class fault lines.
Hurricane Katrina revealed an uncomfortable truth: the areas worst hit were the poorer neighborhoods which were majority black, simply because the richer whites were able to afford to move to the more desired (and thus more expensive) neighborhoods on higher ground.(10) During the reconstruction of the city, these poor blacks were systematically excluded from the rebuilding process, leading to a rebuilt New Orleans that had a significantly smaller black population.(11) Media coverage in the aftermath of the disaster also brought racial biases to the surface. The narrative of the victims (mostly black (12)) of Hurricane Katrina fell back on racially-charged stereotypes – characterizing them as aggressive mobs.(13) Media pieces fixated on the actions of young black men, labelling them as “looters”, “murderers” and “rapists”.(14)
The effect of class fault lines is perhaps more prominent. After a disaster, the elite are more poised for recovery than the poor. They possess the means to rebuilding their homes and constructing storm barriers, while the poor at often left to depend on the goodwill of governmental or international aid.(15) As such, there is already a disparity between the impact of natural disasters on the rich and poor.
What is more distressing, is when the elite make use of their advantaged position to further “plunder the vanquished”.(16) Disaster profiteering occurs when disaster is seen as an opportunity for personal gain, whether this is through corruption or more insidious systemic problems. The occurrence of corruption is unsurprising — the aftermath of a disaster presents a time of disorganization and chaos, where opportunists feel that they can get away with abusing the system. After Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese junta made use of the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Act to seize land that was affected by the cyclone.(17) Land is a prized and oft-contested commodity, and the disaster presented an opportunity ripe for exploitation. As a result, many farmers were left without homes and livelihoods, adding to the tragedy they had experienced with the cyclone.(18)
Such fault lines also appear on an international level, especially during the course of relief efforts. The reconstruction industry is one such example of perpetuated inequality. Theoretically, the economic activity from rebuilding could help to kick-start a ruined economy, by serving as a form of expansionary fiscal policy. However, in Haiti, much of the reconstruction was outsourced to wealthy American contractors, with only 2.5% of relief funds actually going to Haitian companies.(19) These contracts were no-bid contracts, meaning that they were essentially handed over to the Americans.
In the same vein, the provision of aid is also a contentious issue, even more so when it is conditional. It is impossible to view aid in a vacuum -- the donor country and its relation to the benefactor is critical. Donor countries (along with their representative organizations) are mostly Western liberal democracies, and they tend to provide aid to less developed autocracies in Africa, Latin America or Asia.(20) As such, there is a vested interest to influence the political structures in the recipient country, or to encourage a change in policy.(21) For instance, aid to Haiti (after the earthquakes in the 1990s) was made conditional upon adopting more democratic policies.(22) This eventually failed in nurturing Haiti’s recovery, as it only complicated the provision of much-needed aid, and eventually led to the abandonment of the project by donors.(23)
The Richter Scale may tell us about the magnitude of an earthquake, but it can’t tell us the nuances of the long-term magnitude. It is insufficient to only have a naturalistic view about natural disasters. It is clear that power dynamics seep into how we approach natural disasters. It affects who natural disasters disproportionately harm, and more importantly, impacts how we move on from these catastrophes.
1) Mutter, John C. 2015. The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make The Rich Richer And The Poor Poorer. New York, USA: St. Martin's Press. Page 20.
2) "Today's Earthquakes In Japan". 2017. Earthquake Track. Accessed October 20. https://earthquaketrack.com/p/japan/recent.
3) Rauhala, Emily. 2011. "How Japan Became A Leader In Disaster Preparation". Time. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2058390,00.html.
4) Cook, Jesselyn. 2017. "7 Years After Haiti's Earthquake, Millions Still Need Aid". Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/haiti-earthquake-anniversary_us_5875108de4b02b5f858b3f9c.
5) Jewson, Marta, and Charles Maldonado. 2015. "Ten Years After Katrina, Myths About Warnings, Violence, And Recovery Persist. Here’s The Truth.". Slate Magazine. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/08/hurricane_katrina_10_years_later_the_myths_that_persist_debunked.html.
6) McQueary, Kristen. 2015. "Chicago, New Orleans, And Rebirth". Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-chicago-katrina-financial-disaster-landrieu-new-orleans-mcqueary-emanuel-pers-20150813-column.html.
7) Rauhala, Emily. 2011. "How Japan Became A Leader In Disaster Preparation". Time. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2058390,00.html.
8) Mutter, John C. 2015. The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make The Rich Richer And The Poor Poorer. New York, USA: St. Martin's Press. Page 111, 117-118, 123.
9) Dayen, David. 2017. "Puerto Rico Rejects Loan Offers, Accusing Hedge Funds Of Trying To Profit Off Hurricanes". The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2017/09/28/puerto-rico-rejects-loan-offers-accusing-hedge-funds-of-trying-to-profit-off-hurricanes/.
10) Mutter, John C. 2015. The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make The Rich Richer And The Poor Poorer. New York, USA: St. Martin's Press. Page 160-162.
11) Ibid. Page 194-201.
12) Ibid. Page 160.
13) Ibid. Page 177-178.
14) Ibid. Page 182-183.
15) Ibid. Page 219-220.
17) Ibid. Page 154-156.
19) Ibid. Page 117-118.
20) Hayter, Teresa. 1971. Aid As Imperialism. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. Page 150-151.
21) Ibid. Page 153.
22) National Academy of Public Administration. 2006. "Why Foreign Aid To Haiti Failed". Academy International Affairs Working Paper Series. Washington DC, USA. Page 16.