Natural disasters always have a social component. This is even more true for extreme weather events, since, based on our understanding of atmospheric science, storm events like Hurricane Sandy are likely to be more frequent, more intense and more variable.
But beyond the events themselves, societies can be more or less vulnerable to natural disasters. Vulnerability depends on many factors, including what kind of shelter people have, whether they live in floodplains, whether there are forests areas to slow runoff, whether the water and power infrastructure can stand the stress, and whether the medical infrastructure can respond quickly.
Given how close they are to one another geographically, Haiti and Cuba have often suffered the same storms, including Hurricane Sandy, and the different death tolls in the two countries have shown that Haiti is a much more vulnerable society than Cuba. In September 2004, several months after the coup that removed the elected government from power there, Haiti was hit by Hurricane Jeanne. Over 1,000 people died. The next year, when Hurricane Wilma hit Cuba, Cuba was able to evacuate most of the impacted region, with 760,000 leaving the relevant provinces before the storm hit, killing four people and endangering many others, who were saved again by an orderly and complex rescue operation.
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti also showed its vulnerability. Haiti’s poor housing, lack of enforcement of building codes, and the overall disorganization in a country ruled by a unique mix of foreign donors, United Nations agencies, and foreign embassies after the 2004 coup, made the disaster far more deadly for the population, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless even two years later. The UN then also ended up bringing cholera to Haiti, which killed another 7,500 over the past few years.
Hurricane Sandy hit both countries, and Cuba was hit harder this time, with 11 dead (compared to 52 in Haiti), and tremendous property damage. Again, the aftermath of Sandy in Haiti reveals its tremendous vulnerability. When successive shocks hit an already vulnerable population, the devastation is even greater.
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, the city’s mayor said “New York City taxes itself and spends the money to protect us and to have the services that will keep us going. And I know of no other city that does that. Which always annoys me when they say, ‘Oh, you’re a high taxed place,’ Yeah, and we get something for it.” Haiti, whose budget is almost entirely dependent on foreign donors, has no such luxury. And aid dollars – which come with strings that bind the dependent country to the donor country’s policies and priorities – are different from tax dollars, which make governments dependent and at least to some extent accountable to their citizens.
This simple lesson is this: people do better, including after disasters, under sovereign governments that are accountable to them, than they do under governments that are imposed on them. The countries that control Haiti’s fate, including the US and Canada, understand this for themselves. But not for Haiti. Instead of helping Haiti in a way that helps its sovereignty, we help Haiti in a way that destroys it. The result is an accumulation of disasters for which Haitians keep paying.
Justin Podur is the author of Haiti’s New Dictatorship (Pluto, 2012).