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After the impact

What is the difference in a country’s social and economic continuity between a major oil spill, a Category 3 hurricane, and a catastrophic earthquake?

The social and economic similarities in each case will be strikingly close in impact when compared. There will be loss of life in all three societies. There will be tremendous infrastructure damage, and there will be a complete loss of social amenities and activities.

Health, education and welfare services will all suffer losses, both financial and manpower reduction. Let us take a closer look at three countries to view these similarities, while acknowledging the fact that no natural or technological disaster has occurred in Barbados to compare with Haiti, New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast in the past 30 years.

August 2005, Hurricane Katrina roared into the Gulf Coast with devastating force at dawn, unmercifully pounding the city of New Orleans and unleashing massive damage on neighbouring Mississippi. Packing 145 mph winds as it made landfall, the Category 3 hurricane left more than one million people in three states without power.

Unrelenting rainfall and related flooding submerged highways hundreds of miles from its centre, 15-foot sections were ripped from the roof of the Superdome, a football stadium, where 10,000 persons had taken shelter.

More than 1,700 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of others displaced.

Katrina’s storm surge was a 29 foot wall of water that decimated everything in its path. American officials said that the surge was the highest ever measured in the United States. In New Orleans, floodwaters covered rooftops and many area residents were rescued from the roofs of their homes.

In the poorest neighbourhoods many houses became uninhabitable, resulting in political and social upheavals that have continued into 2013.

In January 2010, a massive earthquake shatters Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, killing over 200,000 leaving millions homeless and sleeping in the streets of a now ruined capital city.

Ten months later, in mid October, a cholera epidemic begins in a rural area of Haiti, about 100 kilometres north of the capital, killing 4,672 people by March 2011; and hospitalising thousands more. By the first 10 weeks of the epidemic, cholera had spread to all of Haiti’s 10 departments or provinces.

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the ongoing Haiti cholera outbreak is the worst in recent history, more than six per cent of Haitians have had the disease since the outbreak began in October 2010. As of August 2013, cholera had killed at least 8,231 Haitians and hospitalised hundreds of thousands more while spreading to neighbouring countries, including the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

In April 2010, another disaster entered the Gulf; however this one was entirely man-made. An off-shore oil drilling rig owned by BP explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men, spilling millions of barrels of crude, destroying wildlife and crippling coastal businesses that in four states that depended on the waters.

Oil from the largest spill in US history clogs wetlands, pollutes the ocean and endangers wildlife, and devastates the coastal economies of Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. More than 500,000 Gulf residents, who saw their livelihoods decimated by the spill, have claimed compensation from a US$20 billion fund set up by BP.

The US National Wildlife Federation said that ocean ecology had been “mauled by the spill” and faced a long recovery. They said that thousands of birds and other wildlife had died and that sSea turtles were hit hard. Today, the extent of the long term economic and ecological damage is still being calculated, but it has already been described as the biggest oil spill in history, surpassing the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaskan waters on March 24, 1989.

The social and political implications for each government were immediately felt by the administrations, as citizens reacted through the electoral process. In New Orleans, a Mayor who had lived through Katrina failed in re-election and the director of FEMA was replaced.

Law enforcement experience a loss of man power due to injuries and death, resulting in the deployment of external law enforcement resources to maintain law and order in the devastated areas. This use of external man power also created complaints from impacted residents who said that some of the arriving personnel were using “heavy-handed tactics” to resolve issues, and in some cases were treating desperate residents more like “criminals” than disaster victims.

In Haiti, the additional housing loss from the earthquake only further exacerbated the existing poor quality housing communities, often described as “shanty towns”. The physical rehabilitation of the city was also being plagued by local and external bureaucratic procedures.

To prevent the abuse of the millions of dollars earmarked for Haitian infrastructural recovery, cumbersome administrative processes were developed and implemented to manage the funds arriving from donor countries, which still continues to delay infrastructural regrowth in 2013.

In another instance, a contingent of first responders was being blamed for the cholera outbreak. This allegation was later supported by a public health investigation which traced the source of the public water contamination to a raw sewerage outflow that poured directly into the water supplies.

The loss of electrical power immediately disrupted all social activities, including traffic management, health and education services. Without power, all social gathering and nighttime activities ceased to function. Local and international banking and other financial services which depended on electrical services were significantly reduced, resulting in the verification of checks and credit cards being temporarily halted until adequate power supplies could be restored.

Businesses that were also dependent on foreign suppliers, were also impacted by the loss of power, as the physical infrastructure of the power plants first had to be replaced, before domestic and commercial distribution could be returned.

The economic costs to the victims are also comparable; in all three cases, the majority of the lower income housing stock was not insured, meaning that there would be no compensation from insurance companies for the loss. This resulted in the abandonment of many of the lower income houses in New Orleans.

This lack of housing for New Orleans Katrina victims was further complicated when hundreds of FEMA mobile houses were classified as uninhabitable due to a hazardous chemical which was detected in the walls.

Gulf coast businesses, including a fishing industry that stretched across four states and depended heavily of the ocean to function, now faced an uncertain future as the oil spill played havoc with the fishing industry and supporting businesses along the coastlines.

Bars, restaurants and night clubs who depended on the shoreline spin-off activities, were all forced to close either as a result of direct contamination to the properties from the encroaching oil; or as a result of supporting business suppliers who could no longer provide service.

The events of Hurricane Ivan, and Tropical Storms Tomas, Ernesto, and the personal tragedies of Arch Cot and Joes River, provide some comparative opportunities to review how the Barbadian society has dealt with similar incidents.

What we will look at next week, is how the occurrence of each disaster has had a direct personal long term impact on the lives of the victims and their families and the social services of Barbados.

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