Failures of Catastrophe Reporting: Cyclone Pam

A continual stream of reports from aid workers as they land in Cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu say the damage is among the worst they have ever seen. Yet here in the United States few seem to know that a catastrophe has just happened on the other side of the world. 

 Though touted casually by the media, the term “catastrophe” to disaster experts is reserved for only the worst of the worst. The distinction an event receives depends on a number of factors, primarily the severity and geographic scope. If you think of crises on a sliding scale emergencies are at the low end, where the response from the local community is sufficient to meet the needs of those impacted. Events such as large apartment fires and the Boston Marathon Bombing serve as examples. Moving away from emergencies are disasters. On a larger scale, and of greater severity, are disasters. Disasters are the tornados in the mid-west, the hurricanes in the gulf, and the wildfires in the west. Disasters overwhelm the impacted community but aid is able to flow in from bordering communities with relative easy and success. For example, the Joplin Tornado, Hurricane Sandy, and 9/11 are notable disasters in recent US memory. Disasters are devastating and response and recovery often do not go as we expect or hope for, but regardless, they are handled relatively quickly. And then there are catastrophes.

 Catastrophic events leave both the local community and the surrounding communities paralyzed. Many disaster researchers argue that in the United States Hurricane Katrina is the only catastrophe in recent times (the second most recent being the 1906 San Francisco earthquake). Recent catastrophes around the world include the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and the Tsunami/ Earthquake/ Nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, Japan.

 Diversity of perspectives, conceptualizations, and statistics often leaves some subjectivity in what distinction a given event should be given. Yet, there are some events that send such shockwaves there is no question their damage is catastrophic.

 The media loves to advertise every crisis as catastrophic, nearly apocalyptic! they write. As a consumer of news and as a researcher I have grown used to this type of sensationalized reporting. Over the last 72 hours what I have been shocked to see is a catastrophe unfolding before our eyes and the US media all but shrugging it off. Allow me to do the reporting for them.

 On March 13th a Category 5 Tropical Cyclone (what in the United States we call a hurricane) tore through the South Pacific. The nation of Vanuatu, recently given the distinction of “most vulnerable city in the world”, took a direct hit. The capital, Port Vila was the first to come back “online” and with it came reports of near total destruction, 90% of housing was significantly damaged, all schools lost, hospitals severely damaged. But the geography of Vanuatu is that of 80 islands spread out over 4,329 square miles. Still, days later there are populated islands no one in the rest of the world has heard from. Small, remote islands, with modest infrastructure, that a category five tropical cyclone, called the largest storm ever in the South Pacific, tore directly over? To think there is not catastrophic damage to these islands is naïve and dangerous.  

Countries that experience such extensive damage rely on international aid not only in the immediate response period where saving lives is the priority but also over the long-term recovery. These impacted areas in the South Pacific not only have to physically rebuild homes, other buildings, and communication infrastructure, but also their economies, largely agriculture and tourism. Rebuilding from a catastrophe will take years if not decades, just ask New Orleans.

 So why is the damage from Cyclone Pam not the front page of every US newspaper, and otherwise?

 Is it because Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and the other countries impacted are in a little corner of the world? That they are largely unknown to us in the United States? Is it because we think this is Australia’s problem to deal with? Is it because with communications down for days there hasn’t been a strong visual narrative? Is it because currently there is a relatively low official death toll? Is it because it may be a catalyst for a conversation about climate change this country isn’t ready to have?

 Regardless of the reason, Cyclone Pam is a catastrophe and that deserves to be front page news not relegated to a small blurb 6 pages deep.