A lack of awareness and preparedness: the politics of natural disasters

By Edward Keeling

Storm Harvey and Hurricane Irma have recently battered America, leaving over 70 and 25 people dead respectively. Harvey has resulted in 30,000 residents needing shelter, whilst Irma was preceded by a warning for 6.4 million people to be evacuated. The financial cost is estimated to be in excess of $300 billion.

While the impact so far has been less severe than that of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it is clear that fundamental lessons have not been learnt. Violent storms rise in correlation with rising global temperatures. Therefore, although superficial provisions can be put in place, the most important lesson to learn is that, unless we change our output of gases which cause global warming, these natural disasters will not stop. There is a limit to what ‘sponge-like’ green spaces in cities can do against 51 inches of rain. Such preventative methods are a farce against such weather.

Nonetheless, although climate change bears some responsibility for natural disasters, it should not be the only port of call for blame. Disasters, by their very nature, are unpredictable and devastating and so there will always be a limit to how prepared we can be for them. Given this, who should bear the brunt of the cost? Charities, the country affected, or other wealthy nations? Firstly, while globalisation has shrunk the world, the idea of a global village remains idealistic. Countries themselves should respond to their own people and not shirk responsibility. However, when this is not possible, perhaps due to political upheaval, or financial problems, other countries have some responsibility to help, and will likely want to do so for non-altruistic reasons, such as to improve relations with that country or fulfil historical debts.

Although facing criticism in the region, Britain’s relief provision for its territories appears balanced and proportionate. The government has allocated £32 million for now, but has also pledged to match Red Cross donations. It is important to recognise that, whilst the response can be very effective, preparations will almost always be deficient. Often, the most robust protection will not be put in place because it is too expensive and, worryingly, people have a destructive short term memory about these events. This results in the implementation of preventative methods being avoided. Whilst lacking protection is upsetting and frustrating, this is not the crux of the issue. What must be acknowledged is that sometimes we are tragically and fatally incapacitated in dealing with disasters of the greatest magnitude and can merely seek to curb their effects. Ultimately there is a limit to any building’s survival under the most extreme circumstances.

Britain remains good at not politicising tragedy, and politicians are generally able to put their differences aside. However, there was an earthquake in Mexico which killed 45 people and a devastating landslide in India. The media have allowed these to pale into insignificance against the North American storms, yet in many ways, their effects have been remarkably similar. Not only does it seem we are too quick to forget, but our collective conscience seems too focused on developed nations with whom we interact, both on a personal and national level. This is sometimes excusable, but perhaps the media coverage and response has been disproportionately weighted towards North American disasters.

Loss of life is devastating, wherever and however it occurs. Natural disasters’ are generally more debilitating in poorer nations, and the responses are often less coordinated. In crude terms, America would recover much faster from a disaster than a similarly affected developing country. For this reason, we should, by no means arbitrarily, attempt to have a greater awareness of the multitude of disasters, wherever they occur.

Photograph: Official U.S. Navy Page via Flickr and Creative Commons

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