We are responsible, Not Maria

An opinion on hurricane death tolls.

Read this post for a more nuanced discussion on disaster death tolls and Maria's total.

In 1900 Texans made their way to the Galveston coast to watch the ocean rise up as a storm approached. Hours later at least 6,000 people were dead. Their bodies, scattered among the mountains of debris, were first buried at sea before washing back up on the shore and finally buried.

For over a century scientists from every discipline have studied disasters – sociologists have revealed our persistent pro-social behavior, hazard scientists have taught us about the inner workings of our earth and atmosphere, psychologists have warned us of the psychological impacts, and emergency management scholars have evaluated how we can better manage disasters. The goal of our work was described by an early disaster researcher, Harry B. Williams, as “fewer disasters, better studied”.

We’ve had many successes. Advances in research and technology, particularly tracking hurricanes, have greatly lengthened our forewarning for hurricanes. We now have days, sometimes more, to pack bags, stock up on food and water, make evacuation arrangements, and board up windows. Instead of going to the beach, we know to move away from it.

Our progress promised that never again would 6000 Americans die because they didn’t evacuate. The United States has the economic means, knowledge, and technology to facilitate an effective, efficient, and equitable response to hurricanes.

Then, after the hurricane, we fail. Storms pass, we pause to survey the rubble, and we’re done. That a second disaster is unfolding is lost on those who are not there experiencing it themselves.

In 2005, when 1800 people were killed during Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failure in New Orleans, that promise of progress faltered. The evidence of who can physically and financially afford to evacuate was laid out, dead, on the streets of New Orleans.

For at least a moment this country was angry. The response was called “a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare.” Some policies were changed, more research was done, and with the help of over a million volunteers, most New Orleanians were able to rebuild their lives.

On Wednesday, when we learned the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria was potentially 70 times higher than the official count, we talked about Rosanne.

White America did not discuss how Hurricane Maria, and that which has come before and after, has been layered in overt racism and systemic white supremacy. We* have to be able to give that conversation as much space, time, and energy as a racist tweet.

Disasters are neither divine nor natural. They are human, created by our policies and culture.

We made that choice when we allowed Puerto Rico to sink into debt, ensuring the island would be vulnerable to hurricanes. We made that choice when we failed to pass universal health care, complicating the ability of people to get help. We made that choice when we didn’t fix the electric grid, knowing it would never withstand this type of storm. We made that choice when we allowed a hospital ship to sit offshore, admitting just 6 patients a day. We made that choice when we allowed paper towels to be thrown.

We are still making these choices.

Every time we give climate deniers platforms, we are choosing disaster. Every time we stop talking about Puerto Rico’s recovery, we are choosing disaster. Every time we don’t hold our representative responsible for threatening to cut funding to NOAA, FEMA, HUD, CDC, EPA and the other federal agencies that are supposed to help keep us safe, we are choosing disaster.

We cannot bring back José Daniel, Isabel Rivera González, Lorraine Montenegro, or the others who lost their lives. But we can decide to not let this happen again. 

The catastrophe in Puerto Rico was built long before the hurricane arrived but that doesn’t excuse our failure to help them address their needs in the aftermath. This will happen again if we don’t implement effective and just policies and recognize why and how we let catastrophes happen. 




*I use the collective 'we' for the sake of brevity but it is clear that some are more responsible than others.