The politics of hurricanes: How climate chaos hurts the poor first and most

September 21, 2018
Aerial view of the devastation of Tacloban in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. Photo: Russell Watkins.

Climate change catastrophe has confronted hundreds of thousands of people of the eastern seaboard of the United States and on the Philippines island of Luzon as Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut made landfall simultaneously.

Mangkhut also threatens Hong Kong, South China and potentially Vietnam.

In the US, President Donald Trump has promised all necessary aid to the affected states — North and South Carolina and Virginia in particular. But the US’s recent hurricane history is one of neglect and indifference towards poor and non-white populations — often the same people — not least by the Trump administration towards the US’s Caribbean colony of Puerto Rico.

In the US, the same set of factors recur. First, poor populations are disproportionately victims because their housing is substandard, flood defences have been neglected and they tend to live in the most vulnerable areas.

Second, poor populations have a higher proportion of victims because they don’t have the means to escape from the onrush of storm water.

Third, survivors from Black and Latino populations suffer disproportionately in post-hurricane situations because they often lack the means to rebuild their homes, renew their possessions (including vital documents) or find missing relatives.

And fourth, local officials are often keen to aid property developers in stealing the land of the poor where their homes and businesses are not rebuilt.

As a consequence of these factors, communities and families are dispersed, which compounds the grieving and social distress of victims.

A major factor in all the US events is that a huge proportion of the poorest victims of hurricanes and floods cannot afford household insurance. Lack of insurance, or inadequate insurance, is a major source of theft from the US’s poorest.

Last year’s Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and because of the slow and weak emergency response, between 3000 and 5000 people died unnecessarily. Two independent academic studies found these unnecessary deaths were a result of post-hurricane neglect.

Trump responded on September 11 by typically denying the facts — tweeting that the reported death tolls from the storm were fabricated by Democrats “to make me look as bad as possible”.

Disaster patterns

Hurricane Maria was preceded by the equally appalling response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005; Hurricane Sandy, which smashed into New Jersey and parts of New York in 2012; and Hurricane Harvey, which inundated Houston last year.

In all four of these disasters the patterns are similar. Hundreds of people die unnecessarily as a consequence of insufficient aid, poor people losing everything (especially their homes) with little or no recompense from the state, and devastated working class areas becoming a business opportunity as they are rebuilt and gentrified.

There is a huge irony in all this of course. While the Trump administration denies that climate change is a reality, the US is becoming one of the main victims of extreme climate events. As the hurricane season becomes more intense year by year, tropical storms and hurricanes are routinely making landfall on mainland United States with devastating consequences.

And because of soaring temperatures, wildfires in the US, while in long term trends fewer in number, are affecting a much larger area. A double whammy.

In 2005, left-wing academic Michael Parenti wrote: “On Day One of the disaster … it was already clear that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American lives had been lost in New Orleans. Many people had ‘refused’ to evacuate, media reporters explained, because they were just plain ‘stubborn’.

“It was not until Day Three that the relatively affluent telecasters began to realize that tens of thousands of people had failed to flee because they had nowhere to go and no means of getting there. With hardly any cash at hand or no motor vehicle to call their own, they had to sit tight and hope for the best.

“In the end, the free market did not work so well for them.”

The rescue operation was a disaster. Parenti reports: “The federal government was nowhere in sight … The authorities seemed more concerned with the looting than with rescuing people. It was property before people, just like the free marketeers always want.”

A consequence of the lack of state rescue efforts was that bodies were still being recovered in outlying areas weeks, and sometimes months, later.

More than 1 million people fled the city and its surrounding areas as a result of the storm. Hundreds of thousands of them never returned, lacking the resources to rebuild their homes. The experience of the evacuees was shocking.

In 2015, Laura Lein reported in The Conversation: “While Gulf Coast residents from all walks of life came to Austin in the aftermath of the storm, those who occupied the poorest, and most heavily African-American, wards in New Orleans arrived with the fewest resources.

“Evacuees from these areas, which suffered the worst flooding and storm damage, often arrived with very little. Many lacked basic identification, a change of clothing, or necessary prescription drugs. They were often separated from family members.”

New Orleans city officials decreed that people who had not started to rebuild their homes after a year would have their property taken from them. Hundreds of properties were confiscated, resulting in a change in the class and ethnic composition of previously poor Black areas, and a sharp decline in their overall population.

In other worlds, Black communities have been broken up and much of their population moved out. Nearly one in three Black residents have not returned to the city after the storm.

New Orleans city officials decreed that people who had not started to rebuild their homes after a year would have their property taken from them. Hundreds of properties were confiscated, resulting in a change in the class and ethnic composition of previously poor Black areas, and a sharp decline in their overall population.

In other words, Black communities have been broken up and much of their population moved out. Nearly one in three Black residents have not returned to the city after the storm.

Land and property theft in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane now faces the people of Barbuda, the Caribbean twin of neighbouring Antigua. Last November, Hurricane Irma devastated the island. In the wake of the near total destruction, the Antiguan and Barbadian Senate passed a law abolishing communal ownership of the land.

With local people lacking resources to rebuild their homes, property developers are eager to move in and buy up land for a pittance. A consortium led by Hollywood actor Robert de Niro plans to build a large luxury resort called Paradise Found (sic!).


Storm Sandy, dubbed “Frankenstorm” had a dramatic impact in New York and New Jersey. An incredible 518,000 households asked for federal aid after the storm. But again the impact was much more dramatic in poor areas.

Forty three percent of those 518,000 households had incomes of less than $30,000 a year — dirt poor given US prices. Many of those were low income renters, and a high proportion of them were Black or Latino.

Working class areas were hit hardest because of their locations nearer shorelines and the flimsier construction of their homes. In a piece at The Conversation, Chris Sellers reports: “Mastic Beach had long offered a cheaper version of shoreline property, in part because the land on which it lies was so uniformly close to sea level, near the water table.

“So when a Sandy surge washed in, 1,000 of its homes were flooded, many of them by both seawater and cesspool wastes. Next door, the original Westhampton Beach, hillier as well as more affluent, experienced far less damage from the storm.”

Seventy-two people died as a direct result of the storm and another 87 died in the days after, mostly older people who froze to death in homes and apartment blocks, which were without heating.

A similar story of climate disaster hitting the poorest took place during and after Hurricane Harvey which devastated Houston in September last year. One hundred and seven people died and 300,000 buildings were damaged.

According to the New York Times, despite receiving a much higher level of aid than that given to Puerto Rico, one year later 27% of Hispanics said their houses were still unfit to live in, compared with 20% of Black residents and 11% of whites. Fifty percent of non-white residents said they were not getting the help they needed to put their lives back together.

Imperial contempt

Trump visited Puerto Rico immediately after Hurricane Maria. He claimed that somewhere between 18 and 64 people had died, and the territory’s governor told him that the rescue effort was a “a great job”.

Regardless of the likely fact his estimates were extremely understated, two academic studies have estimated there were between 3000 and 5000 extra deaths within six months of the storm’s impact. Those deaths, often of older or sick people, were caused by lack of food, shelter, medical care and heating.

Among Trump’s nonsense claims were that aid to Puerto Rico was difficult “because it is an island”. Yet huge US government resources being sent to a Caribbean island were not in short supply in 1983, when the US invaded Grenada and toppled its left-wing government. More than 7000 US troops landed within a day, and dozens of ships and planes went into action at the same time.

Those forces could be mobilised because it was important for the US. Rescuing the people of Puerto Rico was not.

Puerto Rico has an anomalous constitutional status as an “unincorporated territory” of the US, which reflects its real status as a virtual colony. The US has sovereignty and the people of the island are US citizens, but they cannot vote in US elections. The hurricane and its aftermath have been a salutary lesson in their subordinate status.

Hurricane Maria also hit Cuba with devastating force. A BBC report pointed to the differing responses on the two islands: “In Cuba, brigades of emergency services, hordes of police and firemen, as well as thousands of state employees, were in the streets of Havana from the moment it was safe to be out.

“Despite the lack of adequate materials, teams with chainsaws arrived to remove the worst of the felled trees and clear much of the debris.”

Typhoon Mangkhut

We will see in coming days the extent of the damage Typhoon Mangkhut will do to the Philippines. We can make an obvious prediction: it will be a lot worse than Hurricane Florence in the US, because the storm is much more intense and because local people lack the resources of people in the US, however inadequate those might be for the poorest.

Climate change disasters in Asia are on an altogether more frightening scale than the US. Millions are housed in flimsy self-built shacks, easily washed away. Millions live on hillsides subject to mudslides, especially in areas where logging has caused deforestation.

Most national and local states are either unprepared to help civilian populations, or corrupt, or both.

But most of all, the scale of the typhoons and flooding has been much greater than in other parts of the planet, because the annual monsoon is the biggest rain event on the planet.

A recent scientific survey says that there is a distinct and obvious link between increasingly intense typhoons and rising temperatures. It says: “Even though no increase in the frequency of tropical cyclones and extreme typhoons in the Philippines is discernible, evidence exists that the nature of these hazards is changing, both in warmer temperatures and heavier rainfall.”

Five of the 10 deadliest typhoons to hit the Philippines have come since 2006. The deadliest was 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda, which was responsible for more than 6300 deaths, more than 4 million people displaced people, and $2 billion in damage.

Civil defence and rescue services in the Philippines, mainly in the hands of the military, are skewed by intense inequality and corruption. But even without that, dealing with such events would tax any country where the majority of people are poor.

According to the Climate Reality Project: “Evacuation plans, early-warning systems, and shelters are critical to dealing with extreme weather events. Warning and relocating thousands or millions of citizens when a storm is approaching would be a massive hurdle for any country — and in the case of a developing nation like the Philippines with nearly 100 million citizens spread out across thousands of islands, the hurdle becomes bigger still.”

But we know from the Cuban experience, albeit on a small island, that a society based on social solidarity, where the whole resources of the state and local community organisations are mobilised to deal with social disasters, can prepare to minimise the damage of hurricanes and similar events.

Medical journalist Gail Reed told TeleSUR English last year: “Hurricanes give you several days warning and the Cuban government gives seven days warning during which time local communities are given ample opportunity to prepare for the worst.”

Global warming

Climate change deniers always say that no particular climate incident can be put down to global warming. But this false argument deliberately misses the point, which is that the long-term trend of global warming is perfectly matched by the long-term trend towards warmer temperatures, especially warmer daytime temperatures, worldwide.

With hurricanes the connection is direct. Florence started off as a group of thunderstorms off the coast of Africa, which merged and as a gigantic hurricane moved across the Atlantic.

And according to a new study, the destructive power of the typhoons that wreak havoc across China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines has intensified by 50% in the past 40 years due to warming seas.

Hurricanes, typhoons and flooding are just part of the climate catastrophe increasingly hitting the world’s poorest people.

Intolerably high temperatures and their corresponding wildfire destruction are the other side of the coin. We can no longer simply try to fight to prevent global warming, that warming and its dire consequences is upon us.

Today we face a fight for climate justice, so that the poor and oppressed worldwide can win the resources to survive and manage the potential disasters that threaten them.

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