The destruction that Dorian caused in the Bahamas is the latest example of why proper natural disaster preparation is a necessity for Africa people.
In 2017, Barbuda and Dominca were both devastated by hurricanes. Barbuda’s situation has been complicated by concerns that the government has been using the destruction caused by the storm to undo the 2007 Barbuda Land Act which codified Barbuda’s long held tradition of communal land ownership. Given this controversy its not surprising that the ruling party of Antigua and Barbuda has been defeated in the last two local elections which were held on the island. What is happening in Barbuda is, much like New Orleans (which I will address as well), a typical example of disaster capitalism.
The Bahamas has construction codes which require homes to have steel beams in the roofs to withstand hurricane force winds. The problem is that not everyone can afford this. Poor people in the Bahamas live in wooden homes in low-lying areas. The shantytown known as Mudd was completely destroyed by Dorian. The government had been planning to destroy Mudd as part of the effort the destroy shantytowns in the Bahamas. The problem was that the residents of Mudd are poor and most of them had nowhere else to go. One resident of Mudd explained: “I built that little home because I can’t pay no rent. Tear it down, but I don’t know where I would go. I do not know because I don’t have no money.” The Mudd and Pigeon Peas, a smaller shantytown located next to the Mudd, consisted of hundreds of makeshift homes, all of which were destroyed by the storm.
Hurricane Matthew in Haiti killed over 400 people. The reason why the death toll was so high was a combination of poverty and ineffective preparation on the government’s part. The LA Times reported that “many residents hunkered down in flimsy shacks that offered little protection from the howling wind, heavy rains and battering storm surges.” The death toll in Haiti could have been reduced if the population was not already struggling to survive. In some cases, the poor conditions of the houses that Caribbean people live in are already dangerous as it is, even without having a hurricane to worry about.
African Americans have also experienced similar struggles with hurricanes. This includes those who live in the American territories in the Caribbean as well. Nearly 3,000 people were estimated to have been killed as a result of hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico in 2017. When Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico, he downplayed the destruction by saying that the storm was not a “real catastrophe,” and told the people of Puerto Rico that they should be “very proud” that only 16 people died. The U.S. Virgin Islands were hit as well and Trump was so removed from the situation that he couldn’t be bothered to even remember that he is the president of the Virgin Islands.
There are similar problems on the mainland was well. The most well-known example of this is the failure of New Orleans’ levees in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina and the poorly managed FEMA response in the aftermath which led to Michael Brown resigning as FEMA’s administrator. Nearly 2,000 people were killed as a result of Katrina.
Kanye West very famously stated that George Bush doesn’t care about black people in response to what happened in New Orleans. What happened when Katrina hit New Orleans was another example of how little America cared about black people. The media coverage of the aftermath of Katrina was very racially biased, portraying white people as victims and black people as looters. Racial disparities in New Orleans has only become worse in the aftermath of Katrina and the stormed helped to pave the way for gentrification as well.
Racial disparities also played a significant role in what happened in Houston, Texas when Hurricane Harvey hit. Infrastructure problems contributed to much of the flooding in Houston as well. The Chicago Tribune explained: “Experts blame too many people, too much concrete, insufficient upstream storage, not enough green space for water drainage and, especially, too little regulation.” The report also quoted a professor who stated that Houston’s drainage is “so obsolete it’s just unbelievable.” Dr. Robert Bullard was interviewed regarding Hurricane Harvey. He explained: “Houston is very segregated along racial and economic lines. And this flood has really shown that. If you look at ZIP codes, you can map where that vulnerability is. You can also map how resources have been allocated and distributed over the last 50 years.”
Racial inequalities, poverty, and lack of proper natural disaster preparation made Katrina and Harvey more devastating than they otherwise should have been.
We see the same issues being confronted in Africa as well. For example, earlier this year, East Africa was hit by Cyclone Idai, leaving more than 1,000 people dead. Mozambique and Zimbabwe suffered the brunt of the storm’s impact.
Mozambique’s poverty made the country especially at risk. As one report noted:
In poor settings all over the world, the human consequences of disasters are often determined by the vulnerability of the community and lack of local capacity, rather than by the physical characteristics of the event. The Mozambique disaster and the subsequent cholera outbreak show us that the community is central for preparedness programmes to work. Since Cyclone Idai’s landfall, more than 6000 cases of cholera have been reported, and this could not have been a surprise for the humanitarian community. Indeed, the disease has been endemic in that region for years, and it has been observed that it is often aggravated by cyclones. Mozambique has had repeated epidemics over the past five years, including two events in 2017–18 that each saw approximately 2000 cases, which the fragile health systems were not able to contain.
Furthermore, we should not overlook the main causes of child mortality in Mozambique, namely acute respiratory infections and pneumonia, as well as severe malnutrition, all of which are likely to worsen in the aftermath of Cyclones Idai and Kenneth. While the early detection and treatment of these conditions are critical for containment, we also know that roads blocked during such acute disasters make it virtually impossible to access a physician even if there was one within an hour’s walk.
In the aftermath of the cyclone many of the victims were exploited as well. It was reported that women in Mozambique were being forced to trade sex for food. So not only is Mozambique a nation where poor infrastructure and poverty make cyclones much more destructive and life threatening than they otherwise would be, but the response to the disaster also made the suffering of the victims even worse by further victimizing them.
In West Africa, flooding is a regular occurrence and at times such floods have been deadly. Last year, 18 people were killed by flooding in the Ivory Coast. In 2009, nearly 200 people were killed as a result of floods throughout West Africa. Floods in 2007 also killed many people throughout Africa, with most of the flooding occurring in West African nations. In 2017, floods in Africa killed more people than Hurricane Harvey did. Flooding in Africa happens on a regular basis during the rain season and many African nations are simply not prepared to deal with this issue.
What happened in the Bahamas is part of the larger issue of the lack of natural disaster preparation on the part of African people, whether we are in the Caribbean, the United States or Africa. This is a consequence of the poverty that African people live in, as well as the lack of adequate leadership that we collectively have as a people.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.