Editor's Note: Dr. John Mutter is a professor at Columbia University in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Department of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He studies the role of environmental systems in sustainable development, including the role of natural disasters in reducing development opportunities for the poorest people. He founded and directs the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List.
By John Mutter
Extremes of nature, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can occur almost anywhere. Their effect can be anything from a nuisance, the storm that ruins the seaside vacation, to the tsunami that takes more than a quarter of a million lives and ruins livelihoods for countless more.
Human losses are the most tragic of disasters’ many consequences and we wait now, aghast at the images on the Web and in the news media, wondering just how many people have died. How many children were in collapsed schools and people buried in hospital beds?
The magnitude of a natural extreme is a weak guide to the effect it will have. The Landers earthquake in 1992 and the Northridge earthquake of 1994 were about the same magnitude as the earthquake that struck near to Port-au-Prince, yet only 75 people died in those events. Any death is a tragedy, but we now brace ourselves for what we can expect to be horrifyingly large number in Haiti.
Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do. And the poorest constructed buildings are inevitably home to the very poorest people. Homes and other structures built way out of safe building code – if codes even exist or are known about, or minimally enforced after the building inspector is bribed for a permit – are built by people who lack the resources to build minimally safe structures if they could.
The rapidly expanding peri-urban slums encircling cities throughout the world are a swarm of these dwellings ready to kill their occupants at the slightest shaking or downpour. Often built in marginal lands, like barely reclaimed swamps and steep hillsides, they are the most dangerous places on earth to live.
In Haiti, even hotels and government buildings were constructed unsafely. A magnitude 7.0 earthquake almost anywhere is sure to cause damage and to cost lives. In Port-au-Prince, it will cause a humanitarian catastrophe.
So it’s really poverty that kills. Of course, some well-to-do people in Haiti will also die, but the great majority is sure to be the poorest people in one of the poorest places on earth.
How long will recovery take? This year will mark the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and if that disaster can be our teacher the answer is that it depends on who you are. Just as some are more likely to become disaster victims, some are more likely to restore their lives than others in the aftermath of a disaster.
According to the latest Brookings-GNOC New Orleans Index, the Central Business District has grown 4% while the Lower 9th Ward has shrunk 80%. Is it necessary to say which is the wealthier part of town? Take a struggling city, deeply divided racially and economically, strike it a blow by nature’s hand and the outcome it seems will be an even more divided city. The rich manage, the poor cannot.
Yes, the levee failures in New Orleans turned a devastating event into a true catastrophe, but the Industrial Canals, built for commerce through the poorest part of the city early last century imperiled people who benefited little from the ship traffic that passed through their neighborhoods. The poor construction and maintenance of levees and the people they put at risk brings chilling echoes of poorly constructed dwellings that put so many residents of Port-au-Prince at risk.
It’s too late to change the inequality that lead to tragedy in New Orleans and Port-au-Prince, but it’s not too late, even in New Orleans to repair what has been done. President Obama can use his powers to allocate resources necessary to achieve equitable recovery in both cities. A stimulus package is needed to restart both cities just like the stimulus package that restarted the U.S. economy.
Along with the president’s palace, we need to rebuild the neighborhoods and businesses of the poor with safe strong buildings and financial aid. But recovery should be more than putting things back to where they were, especially for the poor. We should invigorate these cities. It’s not the way anybody would want to do it, but a stimulus package now gives the chance of a new start.
Otherwise we risk a situation in Port-au-Prince even worse than New Orleans where a divided city became more divided still. In Haiti, where violent unrest is never far below the surface, exacerbating the social divide through inequitable recovery could lead to a second and even more profound tragedy.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Mutter.