Puerto Rico shows how much of the world fares when disaster strikes

Puerto Rico shows how much of the world fares when disaster strikes
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Over the course of just two months, the world has witnessed a staggering succession of destructive and deadly natural disasters, from massive flooding in South Asia, to the string of hurricanes slamming into the Caribbean islands and United States, to earthquakes in Mexico.

Much attention has been focused on the suffering and damage that has visited our own shores, and rightly so. These hurricanes, however, have not shaken our confidence that we will be able to rebuild and recover. When such a disaster occurs in a developed nation like the U.S., our existing infrastructure and resources help to blunt its impact and help to get our affected communities quickly up and running.

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Consider what the power and devastation of hurricanes like Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria bring in a place where most of the roads are unpaved, most of the residents have no way to evacuate, there are no emergency shelters or where houses are built from substandard materials.

 

The situation in Puerto Rico, gives us a sense of the suffering happening in many parts of the world. Even though the island had a relatively well-developed infrastructure, the logistics of relief have been a tremendous challenge, and too many people are still going without electricity and water, weeks after the hurricane. 

Imagine how much worse conditions are in places so remote or where infrastructure and resources are simply inadequate or non-existent. People are unprepared, unable to stockpile food and water, and first responders are unable to reach them for days. Imagine Puerto Rico, but on a magnitude many times worse.

In these cases, people lost what few resources they had before the disaster, and recovery will be a long, slow and arduous process. Many will need outside support for years to come, long after the news crews have departed, stories are no longer covered and the disaster becomes a distant memory.

It is a simple fact that when disaster strikes, the poor and vulnerable will suffer the most.

In 2003, researchers from Tufts University compared natural disaster data from 57 nations over 22 years. They concluded “economic development provides implicit insurance against nature’s shocks. Democracies and nations with higher quality institutions suffer less death from natural disaster.” During the time period they studied, for example, India experienced 14 earthquakes that killed a total of 32,117 people. The U.S. had more earthquakes — 18 — but fewer than 150 people died.

These differences underscore the reason that many humanitarian organizations focus on relief and on economic development. It’s not enough to simply respond with emergency aid after a disaster has occurred. Our mission is to help make communities less vulnerable to disaster in the first place, so that when the inevitable floods, earthquakes and droughts do occur, their impact is less severe.

One specific focus of our work, and of many other organizations working to improve the lives of people living in poverty, is agriculture. People who live in rural areas and farm small plots of land account for more than two-thirds of the world’s poorest people, and they are disproportionately vulnerable to devastating losses due to disaster. A single event can wipe out a year’s harvest, robbing a family not only of their food supply but also their sole source of income.

The Aid and International Development Forum reports that disasters were to blame for agricultural losses of $30 billion between 2003 and 2013, 21 percent of the total global economic damages during that decade. With the frequency and severity of natural disasters on the rise due to a changing climate, it is more urgent than ever that we stabilize the agricultural sector in developing nations in order to minimize loss and suffering.

It is right that Americans are deeply concerned and attentive to the loss of life and devastation caused by the hurricanes on our own soil and are answering the call for assistance and support.

Congress acted quickly on the supplemental request for billions of dollars in additional support to help communities and families rebuild. We are fortunate to have the infrastructure, systems, resources and responders to mitigate a greater loss of life and help get communities back on their feet. 

At the same time, we must not lose our focus on others around the world who are less able to cope with the tragedies that weather and man-made disasters are inflicting upon them.  We must increase our humanitarian response to avert the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and focus on the long-term development strategies that can increase the resilience of communities to better withstand future shocks and promote recovery.

Daniel Speckhard is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, an international humanitarian organization. He previously served in both Republican and Democratic administrations as ambassador to Greece and to Belarus, deputy chief of Mission in Iraq, and a senior official at NATO.