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Re:Construction- Reflections on Hurricanes Stan and Katrina
By Chris Thomas
An analysis of the hurricane relief processes compares Hurricane Stan with Katrina.
Six months removed from the destruction wrought by hurricane Stan to the Chiapanecan coast and sierra last October, the stories and struggles have all but disappeared from the headlines and therefore from the reality that, for so many, is articulated by them. The disaster, it would seem, has passed.
As you descend from the highlands of Chiapas and travel down towards Tapachula, the journey seems to indicate otherwise. Passing through the sierra, you’ll see that more than 100 landslides between Motozintla and Tapachula have reduced the highway to a series of packed dirt switchbacks. If instead you are traveling down the coast, it is hard not to notice that nearly every bridge from Tonala to Tapachula is damaged or destroyed—small streams of water now trickle through the boulder laden beaches, up to a kilometer wide, left behind by the rivers. As the bus squeezes through a one-lane provisional bridge, you might notice the humble foundations of a house amidst the destruction and wonder how many thousands more had been washed away. Perhaps the disaster is not quite over.
But it is not until you go into the affected communities and visit the displaced and homeless in the shelters that you really begin to comprehend the scope of the disaster. For there you will hear the stories of abuse and neglect by authorities on every level: the lack of urgency in government response, the politicization of aid distribution, lackluster reconstruction programs, widespread corruption—the list goes on. While mountains of food-aid begin to expire in shelters in Tapachula, campesinos in the sierra, having lost 60-100% of their coffee crops and the milpas that they subsist on, are barely surviving on tortillas and salt. Even the rivers have changed their course, and while government officials drag their feet implementing reconstruction and relocation programs, thousands remain in danger waiting to see what the heavy spring rains will bring—the disaster has only just begun.
In trying to understand the disaster, we are left with more questions than answers. Why did it take a month to declare the coast and sierra ‘disaster zones’? What happened to the truckloads of food and the millions of dollars donated by the national and international communities? Why did the government obscure the facts and downplay the extent of the destruction? Nor do the facts bring us any better understanding of the situation—more than 50,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged left thousands homeless, hundreds dead or disappeared, and thousands of hectares of cash and subsistence crops washed away for incalculable economic losses—often leaving us with mouths agape, no closer to comprehension. So perhaps a step back will give us some perspective on the situation.
A Global Perspective
Stan was just one of the record 27 named tropical storms (snapping the 1933 record of 21—a record 14 of which were hurricanes, up from the 1969 record of 12) during the most active Atlantic season on record, wreaking havoc throughout Central America, Mexico, and the U.S. Gulf Coast. And despite the immediate public assurances by government officials that these were natural disasters (read: not our fault), these storms laid bare the impotence of public institutions, and highlighted the institutionalized inequality that exists within and between these countries. While it is certainly true that hurricanes don't discriminate on the basis of race, class, gender, or otherwise; nor do they exist apart from existing ecological, historical, political, social, or economic realities. How natural, then, are these disasters?
It is interesting how the word ‘natural’ is employed by these politicians in order to exculpate themselves from the destruction, simultaneously (thought more subtly) casting nature as a ruthless adversary waiting to be tamed by human ingenuity. Interesting precisely because it is this failure to see human action as a part of rather than apart from the realm of nature that has allowed for such widespread environmental destruction as we are now witnessing. Rather than take seriously the mounting scientific evidence that, even in 1988, led James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute to declare “global warming has begun,” little has been done but sweep these claims under the rug. In fact, it can be said that these tragedies, if not perhaps the storms themselves, result from growing ecological imbalances, aggravated further by pervasive social injustice. Or to quote Mayan philosopher Kajkoj Ba Tiul, “This latest natural disaster puts us in line with our ancestors who advised us not to damage mother earth. We must see her as a mother who cries when she is destroyed.”
Another effect of this rhetorical technique is that it frames these phenomena as equal opportunity disasters—as if to say 'the rich, too, can cry’—glazing over the rather unequal manner in which suffering is actually distributed. Those most affected by Stan in Mexico were primarily poor campesinos already struggling in the wake of the past decades' pro-business neoliberal reforms. Similarly, the majority of the 225,000 Guatemalans affected by Stan were poor campesinos (the majority of whom are indigenous) living in impoverished departamentos of Quetzaltenango, Retalhuleu, San Marcos, Sololá and Suchitepéquez—where 80% live below the poverty line and 38% live in extreme poverty. And in the U.S. (that land of promise for the poor of Mexico and Central America) latent racial inequalities were brought to the fore as 67% of those affected were African American and 28% live below the poverty line (of whom 84% are black).
Since statistics can only say so much, let me give a brief example of what exactly this means. When Katrina hit this summer I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and on my way back up I ran into a couple of adolescents wearing New Orleans Saints t-shirts. They indicated that they were indeed from New Orleans, and they were taking a brief evacuation vacation to escape the storm's destruction. As a contrast to this, more than 100,000 of those affected had no car, and little means to evacuate in anticipation of the hurricane--many of whom entered our lives through the television for the fleeting moments that we were glued to it. All of this to say, riffing on an old cliché, “one family’s disaster is another’s discomfort”—poverty being the distinguishing factor between these dramatically different situations.
In many ways, storms like Katrina and Stan provide a unique opportunity for collective self-reflection since, in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, they “wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities.” If we are really to take the process of reconstruction seriously, our efforts need to extend beyond merely reconstructing existing inequalities, and include a reevaluation of public and political institutions as well as the ideologies that construct them.
The appalling response of the U.S. government in the wake of Katrina together with the failure of infrastructure and public institutions are in many ways unsurprising, but are rather a part of the ongoing trend to shift burdens from public institutions to market-mechanisms--an ongoing process in the U.S. and exported abroad through global economic policies. As Craig Calhoun states in his introduction to The Privitization of Risk, such “preference for private property over public institutions has become a global policy” and as a result, the burden of risk has been disproportionately placed on the economically disadvantaged. Is it a surprise in this neoliberal phase of capitalism, where everything from public lands to water, and even genetic material are being privatized, that the distribution of risk, too, is increasingly and inversely correlated to economic advantage?
In light of this, perhaps a deeper understanding of the disasters following Katrina and Stan can be reached by understanding the parallels that evidence this global trend.
Both cases witnessed widespread corruption which, paired with slow and inefficient government responses, did a great deal to undermine the outpour of support by national and international communities. In Mexico, the preference for profit over people was made exceptionally clear by the more immediate and urgent response to hurricane Wilma's destruction of Cancun. People on the coast and in the sierra of Chiapas, still in the midst of disaster a mere 20 days after Stan's passage, witnessed further abandonment and diversion of funds as efforts were immediately undertaken to reconstruct the international tourism industry in Cancun. Months later, while Cancun awaits the arrival of its millions of tourist dollars, hunger and desperation still prevail in areas of Chiapas most affected by Stan. For many migration, which has boomed in this region in the 12 years since NAFTA's passage, has become the only option—chasing an unlikely American Dream.
In the U.S., the beginning of February brought bad news for the 26,000 Katrina victims falling under FEMA's short-term hotel program: they faced eviction from the hotels, and without long-term or even transitional housing options—homelessness. In an apparent stroke of luck for the hotels, it just so happened that these evictions coincided with the approach of the high tourist season for the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans. Furthermore, trailers that served as transitional housing for those displaced by the storm were located so far from the city that it became impossible for these people to take advantage of the reconstruction jobs that were being created. And so who did these jobs, by and large, go to? Perhaps you guessed—migrant workers.
If the process of reconstruction is to do more than put band-aids on the open wounds of our history, it is a process that we need to be involved in every day. In the weeks following Stan's passage in October, the EZLN and the EPR released a joint statement denouncing the misuse of aid towards political ends, reflecting briefly on the implications of such corruption in the face of need and desperation.
At the very least, victims of these disasters, be they in the U.S., Mexico, or any other country, deserve a committed effort to break the vicious cycles of disaster and reconstruction in a dignified manner. Aware that such natural phenomena merely exacerbate existing inequalities and incongruities, these two groups are involved daily in the construction of a new world from the broken pieces of today's reality. Are we doing our part?
This article draws primarily from the following sources:
-Arike, Ando. “Owning the Weather: the ugly politics of the pathetic fallacy.” Harper’s Magazine, January, 2006.
-Frymer, Paul, Dara Stolovitch, Dorian Warren. “Katrina’s Political Roots and Divisions: Race, Class, and Federalism in American Politics” http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org
-Craig Calhoun’s introduction to, “The Privitization of Risk.” http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org
-Eddie Fernandez, “Del Mitch a Stan: siete anos reconstruyendo riesgos.” October 14, 2005, edicion 1629, Inforpress.
-Catherine Norris, Alexandra Durbin, Peace Brigades International—Guatemala. “Unnatural Disaster: Politics, Economy, and Hurricane Stan.” Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), Winter 2005 newsletter.
-Critical Resistance Fact Sheet, “The status of prisoners and policing post-Katrina.” http://www.criticalresistance.org