The Western bias inherent in disaster reporting

In his classic 1986 study of mainstream American media’s coverage of natural disasters around the world, William C. Adams concluded that the death of one Italian equalled that of three Romanians, nine Latin Americans, 11 Middle Easterners or 12 Asians. Unsurprisingly, he found the media weighted in favour of Western interests. Reporting also showed no relationship between disaster severity and media coverage. We might ask how much has changed. Who counts? Hurricane Harvey is certainly worthy of media attention. It dominated the mediascape. At the same time however, the South Asian floods that killed over 1200 people, put a third of Bangladesh under water, and negatively affected at least two and a half million people barely rated.   

We can observe the same of Hurricane Irma. Most of the mainstream media’s hurricane reportage of the affected region has focused on the US. Much concern was for Florida, in the projected path of the cyclone, even as it devastated Caribbean islands with Category 5 fury (and to date the greatest death toll).

After two days reporting Irma, the media 'discovered' the largish island between the Lesser Antilles and the Florida Keys: Cuba. However, an important point appears to have escaped the media’s attention: Cuba is consistently well-prepared for such storms. It wins plaudits from the United Nations and Oxfam for its hurricane response.

First, Cubans are well educated on hurricane risk; this instruction begins early in school and continues. Consequently, citizens know how to both prepare for, and respond to, such emergencies. As Gail Reed, executive director of MEDICC Review recently put it: “A taxi driver can tell you what a hurricane 5 is on the Saffir-Simpson scale and they will give you a whole lecture on what they need to do to prepare”.

Second, before hurricanes make landfall, dedicated teams organised at the community level take to the streets to remove or secure debris. Third, plans to evacuate and the actual evacuation procedures are well coordinated between centralised government and local communities. Cuba’s hurricane plan does not rely on individuals arranging their own shelter or evacuation.

Transportation away from the threat is made available where necessary, and shelter provided to all. Fourth, power supplies of gas and electricity are cut off in key places to guard against fire and electrocution from fallen wires: a common cause of death. Life-threatening power failures are addressed. Fifth, already existing disaster response teams spring into action, to ensure that no one is without water, food or essential medical treatment. Local doctors monitor the vulnerable and their medications. Sixth, the government then commits to community reconstruction.

No Cuban fails to evacuate because of poverty. It is the opposite in the US. Florida’s Governor waived fees on toll roads, but that does not help those with no petrol or money to pay for it, or those without cars. The disastrous lessons of Hurricane Katrina, with evacuation predicated on private motor vehicle ownership, have not been learned. We all know what happened in New Orleans. Local, state and federal authorities effectively abandoned people, particularly those in the poorer black neighbourhoods. Those in Mid-City and the Lower Ninth Ward had to fend for themselves.

The results were catastrophic. Journalist Jane Daugherty noted that it was especially hard for two groups of poor people: the elderly and sole parents. Early reports from Irma suggest the same in Florida. Many poor people live in trailer parks: Irma killed four such in Florida City. Eight people perished in one nursing home.

We need to do better. People working in the disaster community all agree that disasters are increasing in frequency, scale, cost and severity. It is a sociological commonplace that these disasters are not mere natural catastrophes; they contain significant anthropogenic elements (i.e. the effects of human actions such as those contributing to global warming) and further are mitigated, mediated or exacerbated by social conditions and interventions. These disasters have worse impact on the poor, the racialised, the old, the sick. This differential impact is clearly lessened in societies that do not produce such social inequalities to the same extent, and where different values prevail. Cuba and Florida provide best and worst practice models, showing what we should – and should not – do in storms to come.  

More storms will come, and anthropogenic climate change will exacerbate hurricane impacts. Warm air rises, creating low pressure beneath it. This draws yet more warm air. This air contains water over oceans and warmer air holds more water. Warm water also acts as hurricane fuel; heat provides a storm with energy. Some scientists also think that climate change affects ocean currents, including the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. This would make hurricanes more likely in higher latitudes where population densities are greater. Higher sea levels, caused by the thermal expansion of seawater, will increase storm surges.

Cuba’s strategies are all easily replicable. They save lives. In the bigger scheme of things, they may save money too.

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