Not by technology alone

Oct 2009 | No Comment

Natural disasters happen all over the world, but the extent of damage and loss of life has far more to do with the preparedness and responsiveness of the relevant human systems, not only where the disaster happens but also often half-way across the world

The damage caused by Hurricane Katrina to the southern United States has exploded the myth that natural disasters happen only to poor countries. Yet there is a grain of truth in the myth. Natural disasters happen all over the world, but the extent of damage and loss of life has far more to do with the preparedness and responsiveness of the relevant human systems, not only where the disaster happens but also often half-way across the world.

This does not have to be a matter of great technological sophistication. The astonishing loss of only two lives in the Californian earthquake of 1989 was correctly attributed to the inclusion of all the right design features in roads, bridges, buildings, and so on. That might have been expected in an industrial country, but far less attention has been given to the fact that similar features were included in the requirements for buildings in, for example, the Indian city of Hyderabad, where the earthquake of September 1993 caused no damage. Yet the earthquake killed about 10,000 in the rural district of Latur, where poor peoples’ homes were built without foundations, and presumably also without the prior approval of designs by the relevant officials of the Maharashtra state government. After the disaster, substantial proportions of relief money allocated by the Government of India and the World Bank flowed into the wrong pockets, and those worst affected by the disaster got the least help, though in some villages active women’s NGOs helped women train in masonry so that they could help in and supervise the reconstruction.

In many cases too, the use of relatively everyday technology is more than enough to save lives. A man in Singapore saw television news of the tsunami in December 2004, used his mobile phone to call his village on the Tamil Nadu coast, and saved thousands of lives, as the villagers warned neighbouring villages too. Similarly, Hurricane Wilma in October 2005 has caused nothing like the devastation wrought by its predecessor Katrina, for the simple reason that early warnings have been issued and public services have been properly prepared in advance.

Cuba better prepared than the US

Some states take certain types of preparation very seriously. In Cuba, the national leaders went on television and took charge before Hurricane Ivan, as powerful as Katrina, struck in September 2004. People had been told where their designated shelters were, and were evacuated together with their neighbourhood doctors, who knew the people they were accompanying and treating; all evacuees were allowed to take personal possessions with them so as to minimize looting of empty homes. They were even allowed to take animals, as veterinarians were also evacuated to the shelters. One and a half million people were evacuated. There was no curfew, no looting, and no violence. The hurricane, with winds of 160 miles an hour, destroyed 20,000 houses – but nobody died. Cuba has been cited as a model of hurricane preparedness by the United Nations International Secretariat for Disaster Reduction.

The important thing about Cuba is the recognition by state and society that the predicaments are shared by all. The contrast with what happened over Hurricane Katrina could not be greater. Scientists who had modelled a hurricane of Katrina’s strength had told the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that 300,000 would be unlikely to leave New Orleans; in the event, the scientists knew the strength of Katrina in advance and told FEMA of it, but it turned out that 127,000 residents of New Orleans had no cars and that there was no transport to evacuate them. Despite the US federal government’s declaration of an emergency, which gave FEMA the power to commandeer anything, nothing was done beyond a restatement of commitments to help. Even then, one FEMA official told a scientist at Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Tracking Centre that evacuation was not considered because ‘Americans don’t live in tents.’ FEMA put supplies for 15,000 into the refuge of last resort, the city’s Superdome sports stadium, but 26,000 arrived there. As to the national leaders, President Bush carried on playing golf in the middle of his summer vacation. He made no TV announcement for three days, and did not visit the scene until five days after the hurricane had stuck. Even then, he started by flying over the area in his official jet, and then when he eventually made a personal visit he kept well away from the worst-hit areas; a New York Times leader said the President showed no understanding of the depth of the crisis. Not for President Bush the ordinary compassion shown by Senator Edward Kennedy, who in 1971 tramped knee-deep in mud through the refugee camps on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border. And among the President’s senior officials, Vice-President Dick Cheney remained on holiday in Wyoming for several days, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went shopping in Manhattan for shoes at seven thousand dollars a pair.

Among the FEMA professionals, several found themselves bewildered by and very angry with their director Michael Brown, who – unlike previous FEMA directors – had no experience of disaster management and was an ideologically-motivated appointment made by President Bush. FEMA staff got water trucks ready on the Texas-Louisiana border, but were then ordered by Brown to hold them there. The trucks were not released for three more days. Brown’s reason, that the aid could not be provided until the state government had asked the federal government for help, was a fiction; the state government had made the request four days earlier.

As to official agencies based in New Orleans, they were not trained for disaster relief. The police concentrated on law and order first and human needs later; when the US army arrived they, under the command of Lt Gen Russel Honoré, made sure people were attended to first. They also restored communications and water and power supplies, which the police simply may not have been equipped to do. It also caused great anger among tens of millions of Americans that some 10,000 of the Louisiana State Guard were in Iraq, helping to conduct a war which both violates international law and is now being questioned deeply across the United States.

Turning crisis into catastrophe

If the US government’s handling of the matter showed, as one scientist has said, ‘complete ineptitude’, the crisis was turned into catastrophe by the collapse of the levées or dykes which protect New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. These had indeed been reinforced in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy, but had been designed for a Category 3 hurricane, not one of Category 5 like Katrina. As it happened the fourteen-and-a-half foot high levées kept the waves out, but the concrete blocks comprising the dykes had been butt-jointed, not interlocked, and were held together only by mortar, which failed under the pressure of the storm. Maintenance money amounting to some $70 million had been cut from the budget of the responsible body, the US Army Corps of Engineers. That kind of money is small change to a country which has already spent $170 billion on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Even the President’s grandiose announcement of $200 billion in post-Katrina relief has infuriated his own supporters in the US Congress, many of whom have been elected on promises of huge tax cuts. There are reservations too, about who will benefit from the federal largesse, as several big construction companies are lining up for the rebuilding contracts.


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