Tropical storms pummel, and bring to light, a third-world America.

“Out of sight, out of mind[1].”

Most of us of a certain age are familiar with “third world” nomenclature. When coined, in the 1950’s, the term referred to countries unaligned with either the NATO- or Soviet blocs during the Cold War. Over time, because a number of those Third World nations were also poor and non-industrial, the phrase morphed to this latter connotation. Since the Cold War ended, the term has fallen into disuse; it’s often replaced by developing countries, least-developed countries, or Global South.

Scholars have long recognized that even so-called developed nations contain pockets of poverty within their borders. From time to time, journalists pick up on this. Thus, for example, last fall, the Washington Post ran a story entitled There’s a Third-World America that No One Notices. It started this way:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Americans in Puerto Rico have spent weeks without reliable access to clean water, electricity and cellphone service. The conditions on the ground remain deplorable, with shattered homes and damaged infrastructure everywhere.

But what if hundreds of thousands of Americans lived in these conditions for generations and no one noticed? That’s exactly what some border communities in Texas experience on a daily basis: third-world conditions compounded by public and official indifference to their plight.

In the “colonias” of the American Southwest, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens have lived without running water for decades (not to mention the lack of electricity, sewage treatment and drainage). Homes are built without regard for safety codes or regulations. The result is structures that look like shacks, hastily built by residents with little money and even less construction expertise…

As the reference to Hurricane Maria hints, natural hazards – floods, drought, storms, earthquakes and more – exacerbate such pre-existing social disadvantages. The rich are less vulnerable to hazards to begin with. Statistically, they live in better-built structures, on safer land, sustained by more robust critical infrastructure. The disadvantaged – the poor, ethnic minorities, elderly, the young – are more at risk. What’s more, statistically speaking the rich better understand the workings of the social safety net; following disasters they can and do use that understanding to gain better access to government aid, and recover more quickly and completely. By contrast, third worlders take it on the chin.

Speaking of Hurricane Maria, more than a year on, the news media continue to update the continuing struggles of Puerto Rico to deal with Maria’s aftermath. The news is sobering. Writers question whether and how Puerto Rico can ever recover from the destruction of the electrical infrastructure and a “year of darkness;” polluted water; access to school and education; the loss of tens of thousands of jobs; and even the minimal respect for the dead needed to depict accurately the toll.

Succeeding tropical storms have continued to expose additional vulnerabilities across America and its territories. This from the Huffington Post:

Super Typhoon Yutu ripped through the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory of some 55,000 people in the Pacific, early Thursday [October 25] local time as one of the strongest recorded tropical cyclones to make landfall anywhere on the planet.

With maximum sustained winds of 180 mph, Yutu was the most powerful storm on Earth this year and the second-strongest ever to strike U.S. soil, topped only by the Labor Day hurricane that hit the Florida Keys in 1935. The eye of Yutu passed over the islands of Tinian and Saipan, causing what National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Aydlett described as “catastrophic damage.”

Michael Lowry, a strategic planner for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called it “one of the most intense tropical cyclones we’ve observed worldwide in the modern record.” The National Weather Service in Guam said it would “likely become the new yard stick by which future storms are judged.”

Despite its impact on thousands of American citizens, the historic and devastating storm seemed like something of an afterthought back in the continental U.S.

Hurricane Michael. But challenges to recovery aren’t limited to U.S. territories. Here on the mainland, the response to Hurricane Michael is on a similar track. This from the October 29th New York Times:

Residents and officials from Panama City, Fla., are urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to speed up its response to a worsening housing crisis that has left thousands homeless or living in buildings damaged when Hurricane Michael tore through the Panhandle nearly three weeks ago.

Officials in Panama City gave FEMA high marks for its initial response to the storm, which slammed into the Panhandle as a Category 4 hurricane on Oct. 10. But as electricity and other services come back on line, they are becoming frustrated with the agency’s complex bureaucracy and increasingly alarmed by what they see as an uncoordinated effort to prevent a permanent exodus of storm survivors from their communities.

Estimates vary widely on the number of people rendered homeless by the storm — local officials place the number at 10,000 to 20,000, with more than 1,000 living in three shelters around the city

…As of Saturday, 48,665 households in Bay County, where Panama City is, have applied for aid through FEMA — about a quarter of all people living in the Gulf Coast county.

So far, 2,273 homeowners and 6,145 renters have received FEMA rental assistance payouts, totaling about $16.5 million, according to the most recent statistics gathered by the agency’s Atlanta regional office.

Another $17.5 million has been paid out to homeowners for repairs or replacement of their wind-battered houses, a small down payment on what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar federal recovery and rebuilding effort that will span years.

And this from the October 26th Huffington Post hints at the reality on the ground:

…More than two weeks after the powerful eyewall of Hurricane Michael passed over Bay County, Mark Ward wonders when the power will work again. And the sewer. And the water.

“We’ve been living out of coolers. We’ve been grilling out.” He points to a red cooler and two grills in front of his mobile home. He has to shout to be heard over the buzz of a generator.

Although electric, water and sewer service were restored to Panama City residents on Wednesday, those like Ward who live in the rural parts of Bay County still lack basic services.

“It’s a struggle. You feel frustrated because our local government seems to care more about the tourism industry than the hard-working people,” says the 49-year-old. “You go off some of these dirt roads that are still unpaved, these houses are crushed. These people have no resources.”…

…Bay County is known for its sugar-sand beaches. Panama City Beach, which made it through relatively unscathed from the storm, is a mecca for spring breakers each year. Mexico Beach, another stunning community on the Gulf of Mexico, was almost obliterated by the storm. Stark, stunning visuals of the destruction there have been a staple of post-hurricane news coverage.

But the rural folks in Bay County say they feel invisible. About 180,000 people live in the county, and according to the Census, 14 percent of them live in poverty

Ronald Lauricellaowns a mobile home [in the area].

[His] yard is a mishmash of downed limbs, piled-up garbage and two tents. Two dogs and a small kitten roam the property.

Lauricella is staying in one tent and keeping food in another.

The inside of his mobile home is another explosion of chaos. The front door and his bedroom window were blown out from the hurricane’s winds. Water soaked the carpets and drywall.

“There’s bugs everywhere,” he said. “It smells. You can smell the mold growing.”

Lauricella, 19, has no property insurance. He’s in between jobs, and hopes to make it to an interview at a restaurant this week if he can scrape up enough money for gas. He figures it’s his only hope to recover from the storm.

“No one’s really sending help our way,” Lauricella said.

No one’s really sending help our way?

Initial reaction? You and I might get defensive, beg to differ. We could cite ways we are already doing something about that, as individuals and as a community. In our work across government agencies, the private sector, and universities we’re improving forecasts, emergency management, and saving lives. The social scientists being added to our numbers are improving our awareness of and outreach to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our midst. In our work at NGO’s ranging from the American Meteorological Society, the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and myriad other groups we’re also tackling the land-use-, building-code-, and social-justice aspects of the problem.

But we can and should be doing more – leveraging our work by entraining others, building coalitions, buttressing pertinent areas of K-12 STEM education. We can’t allow Ronald Lauricella – and millions more like him in our own American backyard as well as abroad – to fall out of sight and therefore out of mind.


[1] ‘Out of sight out of mind’ is a proverb that has existed since at least the medieval times. We’re told its first printed usage is possibly in a 1562 collection of proverbs by John Heywood.

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2 Responses to Tropical storms pummel, and bring to light, a third-world America.

  1. Bill:-

    For those interested, there is an important new initiative aimed at mobilizing the almost $6 trillion in private equity out there to attack some of these problems. see

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