Learning From Disaster

Extensive destruction and loss of life in the U.S. and our hemisphere from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria will take a long time to heal. We wish for healing for the people of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other impacted parts of our country and the Caribbean. As we work to help in the aftermath, we must learn what these disasters have to teach us about successful recovery and addressing deeper injustices.

Courageous local first responders are the first wave of relief. Typically, first responders are locally based with networks and motivation to help their neighbors in need. Houses of worship also provide essential relief and shelter services in a disaster’s aftermath. Local governments in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico stepped up to lead and are providing guidance and coordination to assist those most in need.

However, disasters can strike at such strong magnitudes that local leadership and resources are not enough. The NGO community has done admirable work with local authorities, and many InterAction members act locally in domestic humanitarian response. This effort demands the full support and resources of the U.S. federal and state governments to succeed.

But the lingering crisis from the hurricanes opens a window to necessary conversations on inequality. As humanitarian and development professionals, we are all too familiar with the disproportionate degree of attention that domestic disasters receive compared to disasters abroad. According to the UN, more than 45 million people were affected by floods in South Asia and over 1,000 died during the same period that hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria made landfall in the U.S. Sadly, the crises impacting the people of South Asia received a fraction of U.S. media and public’s attention. We even see this closer to home, with federal assistance mobilizing for Puerto Rico slower than for Texas and Florida. All are deserving of relief, but the gap in support and awareness cannot be ignored.

Natural disasters can be a tragic equalizer, hurting all, regardless of social and economic class. However, those with means recover from losses faster than those without. Systemic inequality is exacerbated in the aftermath of a disaster. This inequality was sadly on display last month, with poorer communities disproportionately impacted by a lack of access to electricity, clean water and other resources. Inequality in our response also increases existing vulnerabilities. For poor populations, the path back to normal life after natural disasters is longer and steeper.

Only through leveraging all our resources - community, government, organized civil society, and public awareness - in support of all those impacted can we return safety and stability to all whose lives were disrupted and, more importantly, work to build more just and equitable communities.