Tag Archives: disaster

Disaster and disaster – Junot Diaz on Haiti

Junot Diaz, author of the fantastic novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, writes about Haiti’s earthquake in Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal.  The experience of Port au Prince was quite difference from Lyttleton, New Zealand response to their own earthquake.

Diaz writes:

The figures vary, but an estimated 220,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the quake, with hundreds of thousands injured and at least a million—one-tenth of Haiti’s population—rendered homeless. According to the Red Cross, three million Haitians were affected. It was the single greatest catastrophe in Haiti’s modern history. It was for all intents and purposes an apocalypse.  …

So the earthquake that devastated Haiti: what did it reveal?

Well I think it’s safe to say that first and foremost it revealed Haiti.

This might strike some of you as jejune but considering the colossal denial energies (the veil) that keep most third-world countries (and their problems) out of global sightlines, this is no mean feat. For most people Haiti has never been more than a blip on a map, a faint disturbance in the force so far removed that what happened there might as well have been happening on another planet. The earthquake for a while changed that, tore the veil from before planet’s eyes and put before us what we all saw firsthand or on the TV: a Haiti desperate beyond imagining.

Truth be told, I’m not very optimistic. I mean, just look at us. No, I’m not optimistic—but that doesn’t mean I don’t have hope. Do I contradict myself? Then I contradict myself. I’m from New Jersey: as a writer from out that way once said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Yes, I have hope. We humans are a fractious lot, flawed and often diabolical. But, for all our deficiencies, we are still capable of great deeds. Consider the legendary, divinely inspired endurance of the Haitian people. Consider how they have managed to survive everything the world has thrown at them—from slavery to Sarah Palin, who visited last December. Consider the Haitian people’s superhuman solidarity in the weeks after the quake. Consider the outpouring of support from Haitians across the planet. Consider the impossible sacrifices the Haitian community has made and continues to make to care for those who were shattered on January 12, 2010.

Consider also my people, the Dominicans. In the modern period, few Caribbean populations have been more hostile to Haitians. We are of course neighbors, but what neighbors! In 1937 the dictator Rafael Trujillo launched a genocidal campaign against Haitians and Haitian Dominicans. Tens of thousands were massacred; tens of thousands more were wounded and driven into Haiti, and in the aftermath of that genocide the relationship between the two countries has never thawed. Contemporary Dominican society in many respects strikes me as profoundly anti-Haitian, and Haitian immigrants to my country experience widespread discrimination, abysmal labor conditions, constant harassment, mob violence, and summary deportation without due process.

No one, and I mean no one, expected anything from Dominicans after the quake; yet look at what happened: Dominican rescue workers were the first to enter Haiti. They arrived within hours of the quake, and in the crucial first days of the crisis, while the international community was getting its act together, Dominicans shifted into Haiti vital resources that were the difference between life and death for thousands of victims.

In a shocking reversal of decades of toxic enmity, it seemed as if the entire Dominican society mobilized for the relief effort. Dominican hospitals were emptied to receive the wounded, and all elective surgeries were canceled for months. (Imagine if the United States canceled all elective surgeries for a single month in order to help Haiti, what a different that would have made.) Schools across the political and economic spectrums organized relief drives, and individual citizens delivered caravans of essential materials and personnel in their own vehicles, even as international organizations were claiming that the roads to Port-au-Prince were impassable. The Dominican government transported generators and mobile kitchens and established a field hospital. The Dominican Red Cross was up and running long before anyone else. Dominican communities in New York City, Boston, Providence, and Miami sent supplies and money. This historic shift must have Trujillo rolling in his grave. Sonia Marmolejos, a humble Dominican woman, left her own infant babies at home in order to breastfeed more than twenty Haitian babies whose mothers had either been seriously injured or killed in the earthquake.

Consider Sonia Marmolejos and understand why, despite everything, I still have hope.

After all, apocalypses like the Haitian earthquake are not only catastrophes; they are also opportunities: chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change. One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen, and for once we won’t look away. We will reject what Jane Anna and Lewis R. Gordon have described in Of Divine Warning as that strange moment following a catastrophe where “in our aversion to addressing disasters as signs” we refuse “to interpret and take responsibility for the kinds of collective responses that may be needed to alleviate human misery.” One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen and for once we will heed the ruins. We will begin collectively to take responsibility for the world we’re creating. Call me foolishly utopian, but I sincerely believe this will happen. I do. I just wonder how many millions of people will perish before it does.

Japan’s cascading disaster

It is too early for a resilience analysis of Japan’s cascading disaster, but here are some links.  First on the fast variables, and then on the slow.

1) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is posting their continuously updated report on situation at Update on the Japan Earthquake web page.

2) Christian Science Monitor Reports: Lax oversight, ‘greed’ preceded Japan nuclear crisis

3) In his New Yorker blog, Evan Osnos reflects on China’s Nuclear Binge.  Rapid building combined with poor monitoring and corruption is not a good recipe for nuclear safety.  He writes about the a recent corruption case of Kang Rixin:

His was a $260 million corruption case connected to rigged bids in the construction of nuclear power plants. Keith Bradsher, in the Times, wrote, “While none of Mr. Kang’s decisions publicly documented would have created hazardous conditions at nuclear plants, the case is a worrisome sign that nuclear executives in China may not always put safety first in their decision-making.”

4)  Miller-Mcune writes Nuclear Disasters: Do Plans Trump Actions? about a new report from Union of Concerned Scientists which says that U.S. nuclear regulators are way too complacent about the possibility of a catastrophe.

5) On the STEPS centre‘s blog  Andy Stirling writes about Japan’s neglected nuclear lessons:

So the most serious lesson already emerging outside Japan is about the pressures, driven by established nuclear commitments, to obscure information; compromise objectivity; and suppress political choice about energy futures. We may live in hope that there will come a time when more comprehensive and dispassionate attention will be given to the full global potential of viable alternatives to nuclear power. Many of these are manifestly more resilient in the face of technical mishap, natural disaster or deliberate acts of violence. Distributed renewable energy infrastructures, for instance, offer a way to avoid huge regulation-enforced losses of electricity-generating capacity when a series of similar plants have to be closed due to safety failings in any one. They minimise the compounding economic impacts of the knock-on self-destruction of massively expensive capital equipment, some time after an initial shock. They do not threaten to exacerbate natural disaster with forced precautionary evacuations of large tracts of urban industrial areas. And there is no scenario at all – unlikely or otherwise – under which they can render significant areas of land effectively uninhabitable for decades, let alone commit large populations to the potential long-term (and untraceable) harm of elevated low doses of ionising radiation.

Floods in Brisbane and Brazil

The near simultaneous floods in Brazil and Brisbane provide a contrast in terms of their impact (and media coverage).  Brisbane is experiencing huge property damage, but relatively little loss of life – while Brazil is experiencing large loss of life, without as much property damage.

In Brazil experienced much smaller area flooded, but due to the rapidity, terrain and vulnerability of people much more death.  Recent reports state the death toll exceeds 500 people, making it Brazil’s most deadly natural disaster (see also BBC). The Christian Science Monitor writes:

Less than a year ago, just a few miles from where this week’s devastation occurred, 160 people died when houses built on top a hillside garbage dump gave way. Another 250 were killed by mudslides in other parts of the state.

In São Paulo, the two rivers that ring the city routinely burst their banks causing traffic chaos and some neighborhoods spent several weeks under water last year.

Government officials vowed they would review the current procedures that ensure much more money is spent on cleaning up disasters rather than stopping them from happening, with leading Civil Defense official Humberto Vianna telling the government news agency: “[Our] logic needs to be inverted. We are going to prioritize prevention.”

Meanwhile, in Brisbane Dan Hill from architecture and urbanism blog city of sound writes about a long reflection filled post about details and feeling of the flood:

Part of all this is just Queensland. It comes with the territory, as they say. Comes with the terrain might be a better way of putting it, as Brisbane is basically built in a flood plain. You can’t help but consider the folly of building Australia’s third largest city in a flood plain, but then Melbourne is built on a big old swamp too, so that’s two of them. And Sydney will hardly be immune to rising sea levels.Brisbane is characterised, like perhaps no other city on earth, by a particular kind of domestic architecture: the Queenslander. This is typically a wooden house with a pitched tin roof overhanging a wrap-around veranda, a cruciform internal layout to enable air flow, and elevated high on stilts to catch the breeze and avoid the bugs. Designed to create good air flows under and through the building, and originally enable people to sleep outside, you see them everywhere across the city. It’s uniquely identified with the city. Over time, they’ve become both coveted and replaced, with good examples being preserved and becoming expensive, and yet many demolished in favour of new builds done in the cheaper ‘slab on ground’ model of building, which is the easiest way of doing it. But guess which is most appropriate for these conditions? Those wooden houses on stilts are often sitting pretty above the rising water at the moment.

There will be much finger-pointing after this, from insurance companies refusing to pay up due to the releases from dams not technically being floods (what on earth else are they then?); from those who point out that, as memory of the ’74 floods faded, developers were allowed to build in flood plains earmarked for further dams; from those pointing out that the floods are a result of climate change (even if these ones aren’t, future ones will be); from those pointing out that the entire fragile mode of suburban development of Australian cities is particularly unsuited to the resilience required of the near-future; that development should not have been allowed on the riversides and basins of floodplains, and so on.

There will be a time for discussing how to achieve more resilient patterns of settlement in Australia. I’m not at all convinced that Australians have the appetite for genuinely addressing this, even despite the floods. Most people are apparently incapable of thinking about the future on the scale required for investment in things like urban resilience, even accepting we need to get better at communicating all this. I’m not sure people see the connection between devastating flooding and a culture where property developers call the shots, where cost drives aspiration in building and infrastructure, and where a car-based fabric of dispersed tarmac’ed low-density communities is virtually the Australian dream. But if it’s not events like this, I’m not sure what else it would take to make this clear and force the issue.

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Hunza landslide lake

In early January of 2010 a huge landscape destroyed the village of Attabad and dammed the Hunza river in Northwest Pakistan.  The landslide dam resulted in the rapid growth of a new lake that has flooded a key road and many villages.   NASA’s Earth Observatory website has images (and an early image) showing the flooding.

From NASA EOS acquired June 1, 2010. False colour - Red shows vegetation.

The lake as now overtopped the landslide dam, its the overflows erosion of this dam is threatening thousands of peope who live downriver.  The Boston Globe has collected an fantastic set of photos of this disaster on its The Big Picture.

Women, who lived near a lake created after a landslide in Hunza district, cut barley in a field in Seeshghat village in Hunza district of northern Pakistan May 24, 2010. (REUTERS/Abrar Tanoli)

David Petley a Geography professor at Durham university in the UK runs a weblog monitoring the conditions at the dam.

Chile – destroyed and reorganizing

An earthquake and following tsunamis destroyed great parts of Chile, killing people, ripping apart families, and affecting infrastructure, business, politics, animals and ecological relations. This is my short report on thoughts and fears of the reorganization phase, based on following Chilean television and Swedish news flows.

The proportions of the destruction due to the tsunami that came 30 minutes after the earthquake are beginning to emerge as first journalists (2 days), and later aid workers and military forces are working their way down the southern cost of Chile (3 days) . The area of destruction seems very big, now spanning some 300-500 km. Many, many of the villages and tourist spots along the coast that in many ways define the sense of Chile as a country by the sea, are almost completely destroyed. I have attached a link from the national television of Chile.

A debate is arising criticizing the authorities for responding slowly. In fact, two days after the earthquake journalists were the first to arrive to these devastated villages. There are no proper water sources, food or electricity. Also, there is a debate concerning why there was not a proper warning of the tsunami from the Chilean military navy responsible for this task. People in the destroyed areas, being from a country that has experienced earthquakes and tsunamis before and having been trained in school, immediately ran to the hills, which could explain the low number of dead people; but still mourned every one. However, there are rumors that the Chilean Navy sent a faxed message to the national emergency organization which was not properly interpreted. Thirty minutes after the earthquake, eye witnesses have reported of a set of three tsunami waves, the first being some 4-5 meters in height, others claiming 8 metres, came rolling in, pushing some 2 km in land, moving boats, houses, and washing those humans not in safety with it.

What is interesting here is not resilience in itself. For sure, the Chilean society will reconstruct and start working in some way the weeks, months and years to come. In contrast to Haiti, the state is not destroyed, but fully functioning and with more resources and capacities; and with the crucial capacity to capture and steer international capital and aid organizations. Instead, what is interesting is the trajectory of resilience.

After this type of crisis, old habitats and common-days of so many people are ripped apart, and so many forged relations between both humans, species and machines are lost or loosened, speeding the whole of society – and in fact ecologies – into what ecological theorist like Buzz Holling would refer to as re-organization where different scales of dynamic processes (political, social, ecological) would structure re-organization. Social theorists, for instance Anthony Giddens would perhaps rather highlight how “the normal” has vanished, and how novel structuration processes are in play.

What type of new social relations will be forged, which old ones will be lost and what type of social structure will emerge in the wake of this crisis? Will the social system be less or more inequitable? What chances are there that many of these villages will not return but that people, in face of no jobs or a house to live in in the coming months, will move to Santiago where certainly many already have family and friends? And how will the crisis rearrange the relations between social and ecological systems?

What will for instance happen to local fishermen resource rights now in the hands of the local “sindicatos” and “las caletas”? What seems to be a strenght in this respect is of course that these sindicatos are organized on a greater scale (nation wide) which should grant some greater possibility for sustained collective action to secure these rights for returning fishermen collectives, as would be argued by social movement theorists like Melucci, Diani, and Tarrow.

I would appreciate anyone with more information on emergent initiatives outside the state and business sectors that are mobilizing for a progressive and equitable reorganization phase, to let me know.

Shift in state powers. One worry – or at least important factor – to understand what could come to structure the “reorganization phase” is a coincidence in the transition of state power (all complexity fans will see “punctuated equilibrium” lights blinking). In a few days Chile is shifting from a 20-year long rule by the left-centre coalition of Michelle Bachelet (since the defeat of dictator Augusto Pinochet), to the right-wing rule of Sebastian Pinera, the latter having promised in elections less interference of the state in societal development. What relevance has the (panarchy-inspired-/-marxist) “shock doctrine” hypothesis of Naomi Klein to do with this shift of political rule at the same time as an external shock? Will Pinera seize the opportunity and blame the earthquake so as to pull back some of the social and state-led reforms like education and large-scale social security systems that were put in place by the centre-left coalition under its rule? What framings of reality will Pinera support and actively strive to construct? Will it be one where business “should” play a leading role in reconstruction? One where deregulation of state health insurance and health care will “need to go” or at least not be expanded? Initial response is that he has decided to remake his whole 4-year plan and focus on the reconstruction of Chile, by some estimated to take between 20-30 years, but it is difficult to interpret what his plan means (or what the time period of 20-30 years means for that matter).

What social movements and sustained collective action processes can put enough pressure so as for the most marginalized of Chilean society to access state resources for the reconstruction of their communities, shools and economic outcomes? Surely the self-organizing capability of local groups will be important to access control of resources (the fishermen caletas are crucial), but if these are not linked across time and space, it will be difficult to sustain pressure and hopes for a better future, as the (new) common-day and normalization starts socializing the lifes of Chileans. As above, if anyone has information of such emergent social movements (including the role of unions, fishing sindicatos, NGO’s and similar), I would be most interested to hear.

I see a parallel here (post-crisis social movements) with how Manuel Castells conceptualized urban social movements – as struggles over public consumption (not production, which was the struggle over the means of production).

Something good coming out… Of course research has demonstrated that these crises “could lead to something better”, but I am very reluctant to frame what is happening in Chile or Haiti, or any region thrown into sudden crisis in those terms. Of course something good could come out; everything is possible right? But to frame this as an opportunity for anything is a slap in the face for all those that have lost family members, their home and community; and a disrespect to the dead. As belonging to a world elite as we academics do, I find it very important to reflect upon how we participate in shaping how things are viewed. If something good comes out, that something “good” will always be contested, and it will always have come out out of some kind of social struggle; i.e. persons forming collectives that can win power to reorganize into more equal – by some rationale – communities and societies. That something good is consequently not something that is just happening, with equal opportunities of turning good or bad, but a contested outcome forged out of social and political struggle. A multitude of actors are now grouping in Chile forging novel relations to carry out intended actions, which nonetheless will produce unintended consequences. To frame this as something good or bad is simplistic and could just come to play in the hands of some.

Like many, I am siding with the masses and the marginalized, and I try to understand the factors that will tend to structure reorganization towards a more unequal society.

As a final remark in relation to Haiti, which did not spur this activity in me. I have family in Chile (whom are all safe) and I feel therefore more emotionally affected, although what is going down in Haiti is in ways similar.


PS. A lot of events are currently structuring the reorganization phase at different scales. From my biased media view, here are some:

1. A Swedish reporter reported that in Curico a local radio-station became the nucleus of self-organization just after the earthquake coordination initial aid work and monitoring the situation. This later lead to that soup-kitchens was established at the radio-station gathering the city in mutual relationships of aid and solidarity.

2. In Concepcion the opposite seemed to have occurred. There bands of people robbed shops of food, TV-sets and refrigerators and were stealing from evacuated houses. This made others to arm themselves to protect property and family, leading to the shooting of several. Things calmed down when the army arrived and enforced a 18 hour curfew (for the first time after Pinoche the army was used for this bringing (in me and probably many Chileans) old haunted memories.

3. A 24 hour national TV show “Chile auyda Chile” was held to gather money for the reconstruction, following an old tradition in Chilean society to redistribute money through having the rich donating money to the poor administrated through the state. This was en event that gathered the nation, with the flag, the hymn, celebrities, president and soon-to-be president and with interviews of fishers and villages mourning their dead but with the strong belief to continue (“seguimos adelante”), and displaying help-workers, fire fighters and the army helping people. Just a few days after the big catastrophe, people – even in the most destroyed areas – had a party, quite amazing; and probably a general spirit-boosting event.

The event managed to gather a lot of money (30.1 billion pesos or $59.2 million), and the day after some of those that had robbed the stores in Concepcion, came voluntarily and returned some of the goods; some even making an excuse to the owner, some in public television.

Disasters 2000-2009

The Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) maintains a global database on disasters.  In collaboration with the new United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) they summarize disasters in the past decade.  They state that in the first decade of the 20th century (2000-2009), 3,852 disasters killed more than 780,000 people over the past ten years, affected more than two billion others and cost a minimum of 960 billion US$.  Earthquakes were the most deadly disaster, killing nearly 60% of the people killed by disasters.  The next most deadly types of disasters were, storms (22%) and extreme temperatures (11%).

The most deadly disasters were:

  • the Indian Ocean Tsunami killed 225 000 people
  • Cyclone Nargis killed 140 000 people
  • the Sichuan earthquake in China killed 90 000 people.
  • Pakistan earthquake killed 70 000 people
  • European heat wave killed 70 000

The pattern of people affected by disaster is quite different.  Two billion people were impact by disaster.  The most important of these disasters were floods impacted 44%, droughts impacted 30%, and earthquakes impacted only 4% of this total.  Also, since the 1980s the number of impacted people has increased, but the number of people killed by disaters has declined.

Sidney Mintz on how Haiti’s history is ignored

In the Boston Review, John Hopkin’s anthropologist Sidney Mintz, author of the classic book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, writes on about Whitewashing Haiti’s History:

Every medium of communication in the world is now overrun with pronouncements about Haiti. Many have been ill-informed, and a few maliciously intemperate. The extreme comments have the effect of making those that are mildly reasonable in tone seem more reliable; some, more so than they deserve. The New York Times, for instance, editorializes about Haiti’s “generations of misrule, poverty and political strife,” as if those nouns were enough to explain the history of Haiti. …

The New World’s second republic has indeed known political strife, bad leadership, and poverty. But to judge Haiti fairly, it is essential to remember that the country won its independence under the worst imaginable circumstances. The Haitians declared their freedom in 1804, when the New World was mostly made up of European colonies (and the United States) all busily extracting wealth from the labor of millions of slaves. This included Haiti’s neighbors, the island colonies of France, Great Britain, Denmark, and The Netherlands, among others. From the United States to Brazil, the reality of Haitian liberation shook the empire of the whip to the core. Needless to say, no liberal-minded aristocrats or other Europeans joined the rebel side in the Haitian Revolution, as some had in the American Revolution.

The inescapable truth is that “the world” never forgave Haiti for its revolution, because the slaves freed themselves.

By using the sword against their oppressors, the Haitian people turned themselves into Thomas Jefferson’s universal human beings. Yet they were feared and reviled for having done so. International political, economic, and religious ostracism, imposed by their slaveholding neighbors, followed and lasted for close to a century. Not until 1862 did the United States recognize Haiti. What country that profited from slavery could dare to be a good neighbor? The Vatican did not sign a concordat with the new nation until 1860.

After the Revolution, the Haitian people were left to build all the national institutions that a state requires. The term “institution” is used here in a simple way: organizations for the conduct of a society’s social life, whether economic, political, or cultural. This includes a postal system, a system of education, a health system, even a system of roads. Institutions in pre-revolutionary St. Domingue—the colonial name of the territory—served only the one-fifteenth of the population that was free.

After the Revolution, those institutions had to be created anew by Haiti’s citizens—slaves before and now free, perhaps two-thirds of them Africa-born. In their struggle to build a state, the Haitians were obliged to pay 150 million Francs in onerous “indemnities” to the French, on the grounds that the former slaves had until recently been the property of those they defeated. This added burden was backed by the threat of re-invasion. The indemnities were the price of diplomatic recognition by France; debt service would keep the Haitians in economic crisis until the twentieth century.

A country wracked by more than a decade of invasion and revolution, then faced with financial punishment and isolation for scores of years, could not build the internal framework a strong civil society requires. This new, impoverished nation, endowed with a deeply divided class structure and seeking to survive with only the feeblest of institutions, was befriended by no one. Over time, that comfortable phrase—“misrule, poverty, and political strife”—now used to explain everything in Haiti, became more and more applicable.

Using Disasters for Systemic Change

The adaptive cycle concept propose that crisis is followed by a period of reorganization that looks for new forms of organization.  Often these periods rely of plans developed prior to crisis, and are helped by links to areas unaffected by crisis and legacies of past systems that preserve resources during a crisis, for more see Panarchy on RA website or on WorldChanging (Gunderson and Holling eds 2002).

On WorldChanging Matthew Waxman writes about Using Disasters for Systemic Change:

What if we could plan to use the future’s inevitable disasters as opportunities for change and innovation?The planning policy would focus on finding sustainable solutions to broken or destroyed systems. Disaster in this way is used to jump-start changes in infrastructure and thus alter daily habits, patterns, and preferences on everything from energy consumption to transportation, housing and health, economic development, community and civic facilities, open space, food, and lifestyle.

Changes would be contingent on disasters occurring, so this type of planning policy wouldn’t necessitate immediate results without the destructive context – as would planning codes, LEED guidelines or simply better design practices – but it would produce readily-available plans and design-response focused on long-term, large-scale changes to infrastructural systems beyond the scope of a single, smaller-scale project. In the long-view I believe this would speed up the eventual implementation of large-scale change.