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The Chancers Getting Rich from Natural Disasters

And hey, what's so bad about exploiting tragedy anyway?

af Sascha Kouvelis
12 marts 2013, 8:00am

For whatever reason, reportage on Tropical Cyclone Oswald, which battered Australia's east coast at the beginning of this year, was relegated to a position in the UK national news agenda somewhere between stories about local bakery thefts and roundups of lower league football scores. So it's unlikely you'd have come across any substantial information about the devastation the cyclone caused unless you keep the Australia section of the Guardian site as your homepage specifically for moments like this.

Overall, six people died in the floods caused by the cyclone and damage was estimated at £1.7 billion, with nowhere worse affected than the city of Bundaberg, 190 miles north of Brisbane. At the end of last month, Bundaberg Rum – which, as you might have guessed, is based in Bundaberg – announced their plan to release a limited edition selection of bottles featuring the names of the streets affected by the floods, with all profits going straight to the flood relief fund. Of course, that seems a decent thing to do, but the cynic in me can't help but question the PR motives, especially considering the amount of companies, investors, governments and gangs that have capitalised on natural disasters in the recent past.

Remember the Japanese tsunami of 2011 that destroyed 16 towns, more than 95,000 buildings and left 25,000 people dead or missing? (Here's hoping you do, because it's a pretty big thing to just completely blank out of your memory.) Funds poured in to assist with what we were told at the time was the reconstruction of cities and to provide medical aid and new housing to the 125,000 evacuees. However, it later emerged that a small portion of the funds were used to improve Japanese fishing vessels. By "small portion", I mean £19 million, and by "fishing vessels", I mean whaling ships. God knows the Japanese bloody love slaughtering whales, but I never realised they put more emphasis on that than helping out their injured and homeless.     

The rationale given by the Japanese Fisheries Agency for the diversion of funds was that improved boats mean safer hunts, which – in turn – ensures that whaling towns recovered from earthquake and tsunami damage more efficiently. Clearly, this is a case of an organisation exploiting a natural disaster (the tsunami) to help perpetuate an environmental one (the massacre of whales), but let's leave the moral implications to one side for a second. Was this really the most helpful course of action? Who knows, maybe it will be better for the local community in the long term. But in this instance, it seems the thousands of people without roofs over their heads should have been a more pressing concern than improving the equipment with which they could later kill whales. 

And it wasn't just the government capitalising on the tsunami and earthquake; Japanese gangs also reaped the financial benefits of the disaster. It took three years to clear the 24 million tonnes of wreckage accumulated in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate, which equated to three years of profitable income for the Yakuza, who quickly moved in to clear up the debris and handed out blankets and food to people in evacuation centres. Commentators have speculated that the nimble show of compassion from Japan's most well-renowned gangsters may also have been to help secure them building contracts in the multi-trillion yen reconstruction project.  


A landslide in Guatemala.

Then there's the coastline of Guatemala, where torrential rain often causes floods and landslides that can destroy roads, houses and villages, and have killed dozens of residents in the past. The frequency of the slides has prompted the government to declare the region as being in a “state of calamity”, which allows them to procure funds after each disaster without so much of the tedious paperwork getting in the way.

That endless, regular recurring cycle of collapse and construction has made the area a goldmine for developers. After each flood of rain, in rolls a flood of contractors, most of whom – according to Julio Galicio, a member of the association of engineers – “don’t have the right personnel or, in some cases, the professionals to do the work”. What he's saying is that the construction projects are handed out to companies that are cheaper than they are competent, to the point where companies rebuild to a poor quality simply to gain a new building contract straight after.  

Pharmaceutical companies are also quick to capitalise on the fragility of the healthcare systems that shatter in the wake of the floods. In 2012, 149,000 vaccines were bought for an extortionate sum of $3.2 million (£2.1 million) – 68 percent more expensive than the vaccines sold by Pan American Health Organisation. The comptroller-general's office somehow concluded that the drugs weren't overpriced, but admitted that the shipment was definitely oversupplied by a quantity of 22,000. Those extra doses were destined to do nothing but sit on the shelf until they expired, which obviously isn't helping anyone but the medical companies.  

However, more notable than any of those examples came, unsurprisingly, straight out of the beating heart of consumerism: Manhattan. While Hurricane Sandy made its way through the city – damaging homes and offices and flooding Craigslist and Instagram with "disaster hookup" posts and photos of wind – retailers spent their time encouraging shoppers to spend. Sotheby's, GAP, Urban Outfitters and basically every other multinational retailer you can think of capitalised on the bad weather, firing out emails, newsletters and promotional discounts based solely around the storm.

So where do we draw the line? Are we at a stage where capitalism exploiting any situation it can, no matter how immoral, is now expected and therefore accepted? Or should we try to put an end to governments and large companies pouncing on disaster in order to make a quick buck? Clearly the latter. The thing is, and feel free to call me a pessimistic defeatist here, who the fuck is going to do that? If the governments that are supposed to protect you, the companies that are supposed to build you a new house, get you medicine, sell you booze and clothes, Japanese whalers and the Yakuza are out of the picture, who does that leave?

I guess there's always the option of praying for an act of God?

Follow Sascha on Twitter: @SaschaKouvelis

More from the joyous sphere of natural disasters:

I Spoke to the Hurricane Sandy Meme Model

Inside the Abandoned Radioactive Towns of Japan

Hurricane Stan Took My Home But Not My Toys

Watch - Radioactive Man

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