The real cost of disasters? Destruction of social fabric. (Or – just maybe – not.)

Late last week a colleague who had just started reading this blog and noted the passing reference to Hurricane Earl sent me an e-mail. He said he was thinking about Pakistan – the magnitude of the flooding and the real possibility that the nation as we know it could be wiped out. He was stunned by the seeming lack of international help. He wondered what I thought.

This follows and builds upon yesterday’s post on keeping score – and keeping the focus on what matters. What are the important impacts of disasters? Well, certainly fatalities have to lead the list. Property destruction also counts. So does economic disruption. But disasters of the scale unfolding in Pakistan introduce a transcendent dimension that is only poorly reflected in terms of fatalities or monetary loss, as important as these are.

Disasters aggravate pre-existing social inequities – and in that way, set into motion events that change history.

Let’s unpack this a bit. Are you poor, or elderly, or ill, or a member of an ethnic minority in your culture, or a disenfranchised gender? Then chances are greater that any disaster will hit you harder than your more favored counterpart. Why is that? Maybe your house construction doesn’t meet code because you couldn’t afford it and your city or country doesn’t enforce it. Perhaps your favela is situated on an unstable slope in Rio de Janeiro and when the rains come, the hillsides give way.

Look closer to home, at Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. Maybe you got hit harder because you weren’t from one of the old New Orleans families who’d built on the high ground and so you were living below sea level in Ward Nine. Because you weren’t rich enough to own a car, you spent several days and nights in the Super Dome, instead of evacuating to stay with family far from the area. Or you found police shooting at you on the Danziger Bridge where you’d gone seeking high ground. Perhaps you were reluctant to file a damage claim with FEMA because you had a nephew living with you who was an illegal immigrant and you were afraid that somehow the information would get back to the INS and he would be deported. Or maybe the paperwork for welfare for you and your two children was so stupefying even under normal circumstances that you couldn’t bear the thought of standing in another line just to be turned away. New Orleanians were angered by what they saw as a failure of other Americans to rally around and help them rebuild, but those elsewhere were dismayed by the scale of the problem and the risk of recurrence. So the rips in the social fabric weren’t confined to New Orleans, were they? People all across the country were drawn in by the media, and didn’t like what they saw. Large numbers turned on the leaders – whether from New Orleans, or Louisiana, or the country as a whole. The repercussions continued throughout the 2008 elections. Hazards experts have seen this movie before – not once, but many times – and even in New Orleans itself.[1] Katrina wasn’t the first time, and may not be the last.

Experience abroad teaches similar lessons. Consider the 1972 earthquake that leveled 90% of Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the last of a long family line of dictators, didn’t spend his energies rebuilding. Instead, he siphoned off relief money to pay for National Guard homes. The malfeasance was so well-known that it prompted the Pittsburgh Pirate baseball star Roberto Clemente to personally accompany his planeload of relief supplies. He wanted to ensure it reached the right hands; instead he died when the plane crashed. Strikes and demonstrations multiplied; many joined the Sandanista Liberation Front. As the Sandanistas grew in numbers and popular support, Somoza resorted to ever-more repressive measures. In the late 1970’s he was forced to flee the country (and was assassinated soon after), ushering in years of fighting between the Sandanistas and U.S.-supported Contras.

Pakistan is teed up for a replay – but on an even bigger screen. The flood threatens to undo the government and the military. Some 2000 people have died (versus some 80,000 people who died in their 2005 earthquake). But though the death toll is smaller, the floods have destroyed over one million homes. Nearly 20 million people have been displaced – 10% of the population. [To put this into perspective – suppose Katrina had displaced 30 million people instead of 300,000?] A quarter of the harvest has been lost; perhaps as much as 30% of the country has been inundated. Rumors are flying, about the decrepit state of flood control infrastructure, and political decisions to deliberately flood some areas in order to protect the property of the well-connected. President Zardari was AWOL during the height of the crisis – at his chateau in France. Unlike the 2005 earthquake, donors have been slow to respond, both because of logistical difficulties and because of concerns about corruption and whether their aid will reach those who need it. The Taliban and militant Islam look poised to benefit from the unrest. All of this in a country with a stockpile of 50-100 nuclear weapons. The floods will certainly change Pakistan’s history – and maybe the world’s. We can all expect to feel the impacts of this new reality for years to come.

Sound familiar? Do you see reasons to worry? Well, we ought to do more than fret. Nations of the world, and donor institutions should be vigorously prosecuting the relief and recovery effort, in rhe largest sense. The stakes are every bit as high as those attendant upon the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

So much for the answer to my friend’s question.

Monday I was talking with my wife about this post, and she said, in that unique wisdom that makes me glad every day that she agreed to marry me, “don’t you have any success story to tell?” I’ve struggled to think of one (my brain is as good as it has ever been; it just no longer provides same day service…) but have experienced writer’s block. So I’m posing this as a question to all of you. What is your favorite success story and why? Please comment.

However, her question did bring to mind two bits of good news (and a third I’ll save for tomorrow). First is the effort that’s being mounted by the International Council for Science (ICSU). They’ve launched a program entitled Integrated Research on Disaster Risk, but this program goes well beyond research. It asks the question, why, despite the fact that so much more is known about the natural and social causes of disasters, do losses continue to increase? It seeks to improve the prediction of hazards. But it also calls for study of decision-making in the risk-management environment of today, which is subject to considerable uncertainty and social change. It calls for case studies of both failures and success in hazards risk management. This program was formulated under the leadership of a Canadian, Gordon McBean. Jane Rovins is executive director of the IRDR, and also president of the National Hazard Mitigation Association (how does she do all that?). The Peoples’ Respublic of China is funding the Program Office. IRDR, if it achieves the vision of its framers, will harness the best natural and social available to societal benefit, worldwide. A reason for hope, provided countries rally round it.

Second, a wonderful book came out in 2009, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit. Ms. Solnit goes back to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and then steps forward through a number of disasters of the past century. In each case, she details the development of informal communities of love and help that emerged in so many of these terrible events, and argues that on the ground, communities sometimes grow stronger during such adversity. Well worth the read…and again, a cause for optimism.

In the next post, we’ll introduce the last (for now) of several policy measures that could reduce disaster losses.


[1] Read, for example, John Barry’s 1998 book: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. In this page-turner, Barry covers a century of bad engineering of the Mississippi River; a year of such unusual rains that rivers were above flood stage even in the previous fall; normally a dry season; the special vulnerability of southern Reconstruction-era blacks; and how events propelled Huey Long to power at the state-level and Herbert Hoover to the presidency. We know how that ended!

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