Thursday, 1 September 2011

Natural disasters--another way to crush the weak

The Great Hurricane of 2011 has come and gone, and the city managed quite well though the suburbs are still a mess nearly a week later with very serious damage. Here in town, there was some carping and moaning about evacuations and transit shut-downs given that nothing much happened, but the mayor’s team—never fully recovered from their poor showing at last winter’s blizzards—were not going to be caught erring on the side of excessive confidence. [Photo: Natalia Jimenez, Newark Star-Ledger]

My neighborhood had a few downed trees and a lot of water. If no one had told us it was a hurricane, we wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual. The streets were quiet and deserted all weekend, which is a sight to behold in New York and rather pleasant in a slightly unsettling way. The enforced indoor weekend wasn’t terrible even though the television channels were seized by narcissistic TV ‘personalities’ who jammed their vapid commentaries down our throats just like the subway panhandlers who say they are ‘sorry to disturb you’ and then torture everyone mercilessly until they’re paid off.

Wheedling and cadging are the recourse of the trapped poor (and the dysfunctional, but I’m not referring to them), and it is very annoying but understandable if there are no alternatives. A sensible and well-ordered society would suppress it ruthlessly in public spaces (like subway cars) and offer people services instead, rather forcibly, thus: Hungry? You can get a meal through an established procedure; if you don’t want it, stay out of people’s faces. Of course, if the hungry routine is bullshit, then piss off up a rope.

This digression has a point, please bear with me. The laughable Republican reaction—insisting on a pound of flesh, er budget cuts, before hurricane relief is forthcoming—made me recall my first-hand observations of disaster aid in the area around Valpara√≠so in Chile during the earthquake of 1985, a far milder one than the gigantic 2010 follow-up. Although horrible Eric Cantor backed down, it’s a good moment to think about how relief efforts reflect a society and what it tells us about our country to see the attitudes and practices on display when Mother N strikes.

An acquaintance told me that in a prior hurricane some 15 years ago, FEMA came through the flooded Jersey suburbs and essentially handed out $1,000 checks to anyone in the affected area based on the reasonable assumption that people with property in a flood zone would need to fix things or buy things, which would cost them money. Therefore, the government could give them some without making too much fuss about it. If someone with a Maserati in the driveway also picked up a payment, or a sharpie scammed the Red Cross for a free blanket, nobody’s hair caught on fire.

By contrast, the Pinochet regime immediately treated Chileans made destitute and/or homeless by the earthquake as suspect chiselers. I interviewed one general in charge of relief efforts who waxed on a great length about how people always wanted stuff for free, how disasters enabled dishonest people to take advantage, and on and on. Meanwhile, a stream of trucks full of donated clothing passed through the nearby military base at Tejas Verdes, and the local people immediately started hearing tales of how the guys in uniform were selecting all the best stuff for themselves.

On the ground, people weren’t getting much help aside from grim meals in the temporary shelters. Instead of effective aid, the military state responded with—surveys. Those who could still live in their damaged homes received regular visits from a series of government reps whose job was to provide no assistance to people in need but to gather statistics on them. I remember one distraught woman sinking into furious despair after her seventh or eighth visit from a bureaucrat with a clipboard asking the same questions she’d already answered but who could give her no information about when this precious data might be channeled into some useful purpose.

People caught in this trap laid by a cynical, corrupt system concerned solely with producing some pointless statistics to make itself look good on TV promptly will recur to begging, hustling and petty thievery. They will prey upon the unwary, including each other, and make life annoying as hell for anyone they think they can browbeat into shedding some spare change. Equally cynical charities will spring up to turn their suffering into melodrama with the proper narrative arc to make donors feel good and neutralize criticism. What will not happen is systematic, long-term solutions to the victims’ problems, which were worsened by the natural disaster but in very few cases actually created by it. (A rare exception is the sort of slow, steady work by true local development experts like my old friends at EPES.)

Similarly, here at home we should anticipate further deterioration in our treatment by the state in the direction of this familiar, sorry dynamic. Blame-the-poor and favor-the-rich attitudes and measures have become ever more deeply embedded as automatic responses to any such occurrence. A parallel can already be seen clearly in the mortgage mess where the same philosophy is operating, i.e., it’s not that the banks are crooked, it’s greedy homeowners who thought they could afford a big mansion and then crapped out on their payments. Expect more of the same.

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