All too often, we expect natural disasters to unfold according to a set pattern.
A military aircraft passes over a washed out village near the city of Tacloban, Leyte Island.
The horrific statistics emerging from the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda (as they call it locally, or Haiyan as it has been called elsewhere else) – thousands dead, millions displaced, a still-uncountable number of homes, schools and businesses destroyed – may strike us as a story we’ve heard before. But ultimately, the tragedy is unique.
It’s like the first line of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The specific properties of the storm, and a combination of geography, infrastructure, culture and history in the place where it struck, are unlike anywhere else, so it ought to be approached on its own terms.
This seems obvious when you think about it. But those of us who respond to disasters typically don’t. We expect the situations we encounter to unfold according to a set pattern. And worse, the pattern we expect is based on myths that rarely, if ever, happen. This is finally compounded by our all-too-human insistence to base our news stories and response plans on the pattern we expect, instead of the situations we actually see.
I know, because I’ve been there. As a foreign correspondent, I have paid witness to hurricanes, floods, fires and, in my absolute worst day on the job, the earthquake in Haiti on January the 12th, 2010. In my first calamities, I thought I knew – without much training and only a little prompting from my editors – what to expect: helplessness among the victims, looting and social breakdown, and the looming threat of disease. The aid workers and soldiers who rushed into the scene expected them too and confirmed our suspicions with speculative quotes. Then we all went looking for proof, reporting and reacting to the closest things we could find.
An elderly woman wipes sweat from her face after scavenging the rubble for reusable materials
But the truth is, we were often wrong. Looting was rarely a problem, and where there was violence it was more often perpetrated by police than hungry survivors. A library of scientific studies has shown that disease outbreaks rarely follow natural disasters – except in cases where, by some piece of terrible luck, an unrelated epidemic already happened to be raging. And helplessness is one of the last things you’ll see in a disaster zone. From Caribbean flood zones to the blacked-out streets of post-Sandy Staten Island, what I have seen far more often is survivors banding together, finding creative ways to help their families and neighbours get by.
In the Philippines, a familiar pattern is playing out in the headlines: “Desperate Philippine typhoon survivors loot, dig up water pipes,” ran a Reuters headline that was picked up by media across the world on the 13th of November. In the UK, the Mirror took the measured tone you might expect, reporting that the Philippines is "on the brink of anarchy". Stateside, USA Today added: “Doctors overwhelmed by sick, needy in Philippines.”
Survivors cover their noses as they pass by cadaver bags
Look more closely, though, and the stories rarely back up the headlines (which may well have been added by an editor far from the disaster zone). While the above stories mentioned events vaguely related to the themes of social disorder and disease, the evidence in the stories contradicted the theses. The Tacloban survivors who dug up those water pipes were clearly showing more resourcefulness than greed, finding ways to reach drinking water because of a lack of better options. Even the source of the headline’s news, the city administrator, explained to the news service, “The looting is not criminality. It is self-preservation.”
Nevertheless, the Mirror attributed the digging up of water pipes to "anger and frustration", which doesn't make all that much sense if you think about it. A report on Channel 4 News featured conversations showing remarkable stoicism on behalf of ordinary Filipinos. “We’re OK. We’ve got no food, no electricity – but you know what? We’re still happy,” said one. “The relief convoys just pass us by and they don’t stop. There’s nothing to do but look at them. I guess I can’t get mad about it,” said another. This may seem like an extraordinary kind of resilience, but it represents a far more common reaction than panic.
Disaster experts such as Erik Auf Der Heide of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that violence and social breakdown are exceedingly rare after disasters. They note, however, that authorities’ usually disproportionate fear of potential disorder is often a pretext for security-driven, “command-and-control” responses that leave large areas without help and prioritise the protection of property over human life. If the mission of the US Marines who have been to the Philippines is anything like their colleagues’ role in Haiti four years ago, many will waste valuable weeks – and millions of “relief” dollars – on guard for a civil crisis that never comes.
As for USA Today’s warning of disease, it took two sentences to reveal the exaggeration. Far from being “overwhelmed by [the] sick”, the reporter noted doctors have “been treating cuts, fractures and pregnancy complications, but expect that soon they will be faced with more”.
What evidence are they basing these expectations on? The article quotes speculation that survivors forced to sleep outdoors might be at risk for dengue or malaria and that the lack of running water could lead to a cholera outbreak. All sound plausible, but what conditions were people sleeping in before? Does the population in question already know how to deal with mosquito or waterborne disease? It seems likely that they do; one of the accused water bandits told a Reuters reporter, “We don't know if [the water]’s safe. We need to boil it.” Which is exactly what they should do.
Soldiers walk past a military aircraft at the Tacloban city airport
In Haiti, the assumption that we knew the answers before coming in led to one of the greatest disasters-on-disaster in modern times. There, after the quake killed 100,000 to 316,000 people, responders also assumed a cholera epidemic might be looming, despite the small detail that there had never been a laboratory-confirmed case of cholera in Haiti, ever. Focused on the wrong threat, no one bothered to screen UN peacekeepers arriving from an active cholera outbreak in Nepal, nor repaired the flawed sanitation system on their rural Haitian base. Scientists say those soldiers’ bacteria caused an epidemic that has since killed more than 8,300 Haitians.
The worst bias responders and journalists typically show when arriving in disaster zones is to forget that life did not begin, and will not end, with the catastrophe. In the Philippines, washed-out roads and already difficult travel conditions have, predictably, hampered rescue efforts, and the emphasis is on speed – or lack thereof. But preparation and readiness would always have saved more lives than any response.
In Haiti, much of the media attention was focused on foreign rescuers’ efforts to pull survivors from the rubble. But the sad truth was that rescuers took days to arrive and, in the end, were able to save only around 200 of the untold thousands trapped. Most rescues will be by neighbours or first responders already nearby. So the real question is whether institutions will be created before the next disaster strikes so that people can do better than pulling corpses out of rubble hours or days after it’s too late – a task very few aid groups are willing or able to get to grips with.
A survivor walks past two ships that ran ashore, crushing villages in their path
Of course, anything can happen. So the key is to stay aware and try to get a sense of what is actually going on. In the Philippines, the UN has again set up its “cluster” system, in which aid workers hold meetings to coordinate on topics such as water, shelter or health. That system failed most Haitians, however, largely because the meetings were closed to the public and held in a language – English – that few could speak. In the Philippines, it will be far more effective for responders to spend time listening to survivors and finding out what is actually going on.
Responders should also always be honest with their donors, letting them know if they actually have experience in the place they want to work (or even have people on the ground). Donors and reporters should want to know what the groups asking for their money realistically expect to accomplish and how much money they really need to do it. And above all, responders should be accountable to the people they promise to help and always adhere to that primary principle: first do no harm. All too often these things don’t happen.
The irony in Karenina is that there are no truly happy families; each has their own problems. It’s the same with countries. None of our cities and homes are immune from disaster, and in a warming, crowded world, calamity seems more likely to strike than ever. In every case, it is crucial to stop, understand the situation and keep working until the real problems are solved. It’s what we would expect for our own families, after all.
Jonathan M Katz is a freelance journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. He was the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti from 2007 to 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
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