Socialist Worker

Nature is not to blame for the human cost of hurricanes

Hurricane Isaac has demonstrated the power of nature—but poverty decides whether such storms become disasters, writes Dave Sewell

Issue No. 2319

The reality of how devastating storms affect different populations differently can be seen with 1994’s Hurricane Jeanne. Like Isaac, it raged through the Caribbean and the coast of the US.

Jeanne left a trail of destruction across the island of Hispaniola. In the Dominican Republic, the country that makes up the eastern half of the island, 24 people were killed. But in impoverished Haiti to the west, the death toll was counted in the thousands.

The difference was poverty. Haiti was, and remains, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It has endured repeated interventions by the US, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The neoliberalism imposed by the latter resulted in 97 percent of Haiti’s natural forest being hacked down. This makes Haiti much more vulnerable to flooding.

Many thousands of migrants have been driven from the countryside into huge hillside slums such as Cité Soleil. These people had almost no protection from the disaster, and received very little support to recover from it.

Instead of food, water and shelter for the poorest people who lost everything to the disaster, billions of international aid money went towards “security”. United Nations “peacekeeping” troops backed this up.

The gap between rich and poor was even starker after Haiti’s earthquake in 2010. Rich tourists continued to splash in the sea to the north. Troops were sent in to “restore order” in the south—where more than 100,000 people were dead and another two million homeless.


Natural disasters have always happened, although extreme weather events could be becoming more frequent due to climate change.

But the mass deaths they unleash are anything but natural. Residents of New Orleans were given a harsh reminder of that fact last week—seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

When Katrina hit in 2005 the levees—dykes that hold back flood water—failed, the city’s poorer areas were flooded and up to 2,000 people died.

As Isaac approached this year residents were instructed to leave areas outside the city’s levee system in advance of Hurricane Isaac.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered in three parishes. But even with some assisted evacuation procedures put in place after Katrina, many can’t afford to flee.

“You need money to leave,” said Scott McMorris, a mechanic in the city’s Lower Ninth ward where half of the deaths from Katrina took place. “A lot of people can’t afford to run. You either pay your bills or you run. Can’t do both.”

Retired oil rig worker Gregory Richardson was in the same position. “My social welfare comes on the third of the month,” he said. “If it came this week I wouldn’t be here talking to you now.”

If that’s the dilemma facing working class people in the richest country in the world, many in poorer countries have no chance.

Cuts led to Katrina disaster in New Orleans

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) listed a hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the top three potential disasters. A year before Katrina hit it modelled the impact of a virtual Hurricane Pam. This killed 60,000 virtual people.

When Katrina first appeared it was a Category 5 hurricane—the virtual Pam had only been Category 3. Despite this the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, initially refused to order a mandatory evacuation.

When it did finally order an evacuation the city did not provide transport, not even the school buses that it owned. Many people couldn’t afford to leave on their own funds.

By the time Katrina hit it had reduced to a Category 2. But the city’s dykes—the levees—had not been repaired or updated due to a mix of corruption and sub-contracting. They failed and around 80 percent of the city flooded.

Fema stopped doctors and small fishing boats from entering the city. But mercenary firm Blackwater, better known for its operations in Iraq, was allowed in.

The authorities declared a state of emergency amid lurid claims that gangs of looters and rapists were roaming the streets. These claims were a pack of lies.

Armed police turned back hundreds of dehydrated survivors trying to escape the city by bridge to Gretna in the south. Cops fired on unarmed people on Danziger Bridge, killing two.

Once the waters receded reconstruction was slow. Some people had to wait up to two years in trailer parks outside the state before being allowed to come home.

After Katrina $14.5 billion (£9 billion) was finally spent upgrading levees. But last week the far weaker Hurricane Isaac washed over one of these.

And a project to rebuild the wetlands that used to protect the city from storm surges received only about 3 percent of its funding. This means that even if the levees hold, heavy rains can cause flooding.

Hurricane Isaac was not the disaster many had feared. But it reminded black and working class people that if another Katrina happens, their government wouldn’t care if they lived or died.

Levees failed after cash blocked

In the four years leading up to Hurricane Katrina, president George Bush cut funding for repairs to New Orleans’ levees by 50 percent.

The army engineering corps asked for £2.5 million to plan an upgrade to cope with a severe hurricane. It projected that this would cost £630 million. Congress didn’t even discuss it.

Thousands killed in Guatemala

Hurricane Stan in 2005 was a fairly weak storm. But its human cost in Central America was staggering.

In Guatemala up to 2,000 people were killed. Villages made of reed and tin were entirely buried in mud. Without government help, villagers of Panabaj were left to dig out the dead.with shovels and hoes.

Republican blackmail

Hurricane Isaac largely missed the Republican convention in Florida. Most delegates kept their mouths shut on the issue—knowing how Katrina had damaged George Bush.

But Congressman Raul Labrador called for disaster relief to be made dependent on cuts. “I think government should do what every family does,” he said.

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Background Check
Tue 4 Sep 2012, 17:52 BST
Issue No. 2319
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