Here in New York City we too felt the hurricanes that brought so much death and destruction to Florida over the last couple of months. Basically it rained a lot, but with umbrellas up, New Yorkers went about their business as if nothing happened because, in fact, nothing much did happen.
Not true for Floridians. Over $7 billion in property losses and almost 100 lives lost. In New York we got the distal ends of the storms but still some lives were lost and several million dollars worth of property was damaged. From New York to Florida the number of deaths approximately scales to the severity of the natural event: getting the full-on hit from the storm Floridians suffered much more than New Yorkers.
The same storms late summer storms wreaked havoc on Haiti, still reeling from the destruction caused by torrential rains last May. So far, the Haitian death toll from Jeanne alone approaches 3,000. The full number who will die subsequently of disease from lack of clean water, malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions will probably never be established. For the year Haiti may have lost close to 6000. That's way off scale. The storms in Haiti were extraordinary, but not 600 times more severe than in Florida .
Why have so many died in Haiti ?
The reason is poverty. What happened in Haiti is typical when natural systems clash with human efforts to cope with poverty. In an attempt to increase the land available for crops, Haiti has been almost completely deforested. For all the land they clear, Haitian farmers end up with little more than subsistence-level crops. Crop yields are meager, much lower than in richer countries where advanced agro-technologies and chemical fertilizers are the norm. The very poorest Haitians burn trees for charcoal, sold at a pittance for fuel to buy enough food to live. By deforesting the countryside, the people help to create a ghastly feedback, destroying their own environment in a quest for survival that instead exacerbates the risks associated with survival. The Haitian floods that washed away lives and good soil were caused by the lack of vegetation cover that can control water flow.
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere but by no means the world's poorest. More than 20 nations -- all of them in Africa -- are actually poorer when measured by the UN's Human Development Index that includes social as well as economic measures. The poorest always suffer the most at the hands of Nature, both here and abroad. Their dwellings are the most fragile; they often inhabit dangerous landscapes, building on steep slopes, in riverbeds or in swamps – all places where the wealthy choose not to live for good reason. When natural disasters hit, these communities disproportionately face the wrath of Nature, which then overpowers efforts to rise above poverty.
Here in the United States, we turn to insurance, disaster management agencies and a host of local and regional organizations to rebuild our communities. In Haiti and other poor places, this safety net is unimaginable, much less available. The poorest of the poor deserve better.
It is time to re-think the way international aid responds to disaster in the poorest countries, so that instead of providing one-time humanitarian relief to each inevitable disaster resilience to Nature's excesses is achieved. Improved housing construction, early warning systems and other science-based hazard mitigation will help these people lift themselves out of their poverty.