How not to build back after disasters

How not to build back after disasters
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As well-to-do Bahamians check on the status of their beachside palatial estates, the poor residents find their makeshift homes on the outer islands in ruins from Hurricane Dorian. Whenever a major storm hits, it exposes the vast poverty and growing inequality. Recall the 2004 tsunami in South Asia. Or the discrepancy between New Orleans’s Ninth Ward and its leafy Garden District after Katrina. 

Likewise, poverty has been growing throughout the Bahamas. This year, it recorded the second highest economic and social inequality in the Caribbean. 

The official death toll is 50. Some 2,500 people are still missing. Outbreaks of infectious diseases like cholera, lack of clean water, and crumbling clinics could continue to raise the death toll. Poor people are especially vulnerable. When Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico two years ago, people living in poorer neighborhoods were 50 percent more likely to die during the six months after the storm.

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Natural disasters disproportionately affect the underclass. Yet, disaster recovery has amplified social inequality that made poor communities more vulnerable to natural disasters in the first place. 

Poor people tend to live in disaster-prone areas because of cheaper housing. Their houses are built with low-quality construction material and many cannot afford homeowner’s insurance. In New Orleans, where segregation pushed black people to own homes in flood-prone areas, racial inequality directly resulted in unfair distribution of risk

A 2018 study of U.S. counties that experienced large natural disaster damage between 1999 and 2013 found that black and Hispanic households lost up to $29,000 on average throughout the 14-year period, while white households gained $124,000. The more an area received money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the more wealth inequality increased in the area, since FEMA assistance was based on property value, not need. 

The wealth gap exists between countries, too. A 2016 UN report found that an overwhelming majority of natural disaster deaths between 1996 and 2015 occurred in low- and middle-income countries, including small island states like the Bahamas. In California, where buildings are resistant to earthquakes, the impact of a level 7 earthquake can be limited to property damage. In Haiti, it can kill more than 220,000 people, as it did in 2010. Today, parts of the country are still piles of rubble, facing cholera epidemics and widespread hunger. In Puerto Rico, neglected infrastructure and a poor economy that plagued the country before Hurricane Maria struck also impeded the recovery effort. 

Since the 1980s, the UN has urged governments to improve social conditions and local preparedness to reduce the risk of future disasters. Unfortunately, national agencies and international organizations — including the UN sometimes — continue to take a top-down military-style approach, which emphasizes “best practices” and rapid response.

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It’s an approach that has backfired time and again. It encourages aid agencies to go it alone to boost their burn rates quickly, so that they can get more funding. It compounds the view that the affected populations are victims, incapable of playing a role in reconstruction — even though they are the ones with local knowledge and a vested interest in rebuilding their communities. It ignores the local context and unique needs of different populations. For instance, in many countries women are expected to continue to care for others throughout disaster recovery, even as they face lack of food and water. But women’s unique hardship counts for naught under this approach.

As an aid worker during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami recovery in Indonesia, I saw aid agencies flock to afflicted areas and erect houses. None of them involved the survivors in the process. Built overnight, many houses had construction defects, were culturally inappropriate, and remained uninhabited. Since aid agencies didn’t coordinate, some villages got tons of houses while others got nothing.

This approach stirred up tension and anger in the coastal communities. Many survivors rode out the rainy season in tattered tents because they mistakenly believed that moving into a temporary barrack would forfeit their right to a permanent housing. Aid agencies weren’t even aware of such widespread misinformation. In fact, the lack of community participation is a major reason housing reconstruction projects following disasters fail, according to a global review of case studies

The disconnect between those who manage disaster aid and those who receive it has only deepened, as governments seek growth at the expense of public services. After Hurricane Katrina rolled through New Orleans in 2005, the government tore down public housing in high-value real estate and built private buildings to attract market-rate residents. In the Caribbean, governments took the resources earmarked for social investment to pay off debt.

FEMA officials may argue that their role is to respond to emergencies, not to address longstanding issues of social inequality. However, it is clear that without addressing the survivors’ needs — a first step toward tackling the problem of inequality — disaster recovery cannot be successful. It is the only way to link recovery with long-term development to build resilience against future storms. It is also cheaper than maintaining the current system, which hoovers up taxpayers’ money without yielding any long-term improvement.

Extreme weather will get only more extreme. Ultimately, dealing with “category hell” hurricanes means making transformational changes to avoid the worst-case scenarios scientists estimate.

The Bahamas’ luxury resorts and residences were powered by hotel workers, laborers, migrants and fishermen. As they pick up the pieces, outside agencies would do well to understand that without them, there would be no building back.

Katrin Park has developed and implemented integrated advocacy and communications strategies for development organizations, including the United Nations Development Program in New York and the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas in Cairo, to promote development policies and support humanitarian operations.