Part 2: Lessons From Disasters Past
Hurricane Sandy reinforces important lessons from disasters past, from Hurricane Katrina's impact on the Gulf Coast in 2005 to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In light of global climate change, which will continue to exacerbate extreme weather patterns, these lessons feel particularly relevant to me as my adopted hometown of New York works to recover & rebuild. A few key ideas I have learned from Digital Democracy's work in Haiti:
1) Natural disasters link us to one another - everyone is affected.
2) However, some people are more impacted than others - poor and marginalized communities are most vulnerable to threats, and take the longest to rebuild.
3) For the most-affected communities, a disaster's impacts are felt long after the aftershocks, or storm, subsides.
4) In places where infrastructure is weakest, local communities are the first and sometimes only responders. Yet this is also where hope for recovery lies. By reinforcing existing networks of support, technology offers an opportunity for previously marginalized communities to build more resilient structures for the future.
Let's begin with the links that natural disasters create, and what that means for reinforcing empathy and collaborative response. In the case of Sandy, this is the literal link forged by the hurricane's path from the Caribbean to the Eastern Seaboard. Lives were lost in both regions. Houses were damaged in Santiago de Cuba and Cape May, New Jersey. When we see images of people wading through floodwaters, of houses destroyed, we can put ourselves in the shoes of the other, feel empathy and recognize how easily it might have been us.
The second lesson is more ominous, and therefore all the more important to heed: Natural disasters exacerbate existing inequalities. The death toll in Haiti is higher than other Caribbean countries in part due to the weakened infrastructure. For the estimated 370,000 Haitians still living in tent camps in the Port-au-Prince area, the heavy lashings of wind & rain were all the more dangerous because they were falling on shelters that were never meant to be anything more than temporary. Imagine losing your home to an earthquake, moving to a tent camp, and living there for more than two years. That is the scenario upon which Hurricane Sandy unleashed its torrential downpour, flooding camps & temporary shelters. The death toll will rise in the coming weeks due to cholera & other preventable illnesses that will flourish in the wreckage left behind by Sandy.
The United States is not spared by this lesson. Here in New York, Sandy has also disproportionately affected certain communities. While Staten Island, lower Manhattan and parts of Queens & Brooklyn have been hardest hit, it is the most marginalized within these communities who were and remain the most vulnerable to the impact of the storm. As lower Manhattan - including its many public housing units - remains without electricity, and sometimes running water - for going on five days, a very serious and concerning public health problem emerges. This is compounded by the fact that mobile phone service has also been unavailable in the parts of lower Manhattan that lost power. For those with the resources to leave, or healthy enough to walk north, losing power may be nothing more than an inconvenience. For those who live at the margins, it is life-threatening. Many important reports have come out about this, from David Rhode's exploration of the divide in The Atlantic, to Alex Koppelman's New Yorker piece Sandy's Forgotten.
These realities inform the third lesson: For those living in tents in Haiti & public housing residents of lower Manhattan, the storm may have been the moment of greatest danger, but the impact lingers. As gas shortages increase throughout the region, concerns about access to basic necessities of food and clean water will only intensify. For people who are elderly, immobile or unable to access emergency information, what happens as the days pass by without electricity, or water? What about the environmental hazards of living near standing water that is filled with pollutants from gasoline & other toxic chemicals? What kinds of diseases will strain our health care system? Where will people go whose houses have been completely destroyed? What about the economic impact, across the city, for those living paycheck to paycheck, unable to work this week, or longer? Just as the Haitian earthquake is responsible for hundreds of thousands still living in tent camps, for many, Hurricane Sandy is not over yet. It may not be for some time.
Yet everywhere, moments of crisis bring people together, and often bring out the best in people. As Jonathan Katz wrote in What Haiti Can Teach Us About the Storm, natural disasters can strengthen community networks. While the role of government services is absolutely critical, it is not just official sources who respond in moments of crisis. It is also the greater community - neighbors helping neighbors, people opening up their homes & sharing their resources with friends from across the city.
Technology is not a panacea, but it, too, has a role to play in the recovery efforts. Online social networks compliment offline ones. First, they provided a place for people to post their own updates and let loved ones know they are okay. As people move into recovery mode, tools like Facebook, Twitter, even Google Docs are helping people connect their talents & resources with those in need. The New York Tech community has used the hashtags #NYTechResponds and #SandyVolunteer, while Hurricane Hackers has done a tremendous job of using open-source tools to organize response.
Yet even as Hackathons are being organized for the coming weeks and days, I know all to well from Haiti that the hardest hit by Sandy are the least likely to be in contact with the vibrant tech community. As technologists work to amass their considerable talents & skills, the task must be to ensure that deep, offline outreach is done within the most affected communities. As I wrote about in Part One, The View From Inside A Haitian Emergency Response Hotline, it is only through this kind of collaboration that enduring solutions can be created.
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