Katrina and Mitch, Siblings of Negligence
On any given day there is not much in common between the United States and Nicaragua. However, when faced with the wrath of hurricane flooding, the situation in the richest and the poorest nations of the continental Americas seems one and the same.
When Hurricane Mitch was inundating Nicaragua in October 1998, leaving over 3,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, the former president of the impoverished Central American nation, Arnoldo Aleman, didn’t even bother to declare an emergency and left people to fend for themselves without information or resources. When two entire rural communities were swept away in a landslide he claimed the cries of help from survivors was leftwing propaganda against his government.
When Hurricane Katrina approached the richest country on Earth, the president of that country was on a horse checking the fences of his hacienda to make sure the anti-war protestors nearby wouldn’t get close enough to be heard. “I’ve got to have a life too,” the oilman told the press, when asked if he was going to meet with the mother of one of the 1,875 US soldiers killed so far in Iraq. When criticism over the handling of the hurricane aftermath rained on Washington, the president said, “We’re doing all we can.”
Mitch unveiled what many had said before; that many less fortunate people in Nicaragua were forced by the free market to live alongside rivers, creeks and on hillsides, especially vulnerable to flooding.
Katrina unveiled what many had also said before; that the levees protecting the bowl-shaped, below-sea-level New Orleans could only withstand a Category 3 hurricane and that global warming was preparing a Category 4 or 5 strike. It was no secret that a lot of poor people, mostly African-Americans and other immigrants would suffer the consequences.
In Nicaragua there was little warning and there were no government evacuations, transportation or shelters in the days prior and during the flooding. The capital and the political class were safe and the only people in trouble were the rural poor and marginalized residents of the country’s provincial cities; people barely consumers in dollar and cent terms.
In New Orleans there was a warning, but for the First World poor it was as if there hadn’t been. Officials told residents to pack their cars and get out of the city. Somehow they forgot that many of the poor, who live off low salaries, food stamps, unemployment benefits, welfare or social security payments, don’t have cars and live from day to day, unable to amass the funds needed to take the family on a little trip, much less rent a hotel room.
In Nicaragua most of the elderly and people with disabilities lived (and live) with their families in the same precarious situations that poverty (and some would say destiny) has provided them. When the flooding was imminent, the marketplace and the government decided that nothing needed to be done for this even less consuming sector of society.
In New Orleans some of the elderly poor and people with disabilities lived in nursing homes and others with their families. When Katrina struck, in the nursing homes many were left to pray for a rescue that never came. In their homes, many of the handicapped perished before they could get to the rooftops where they would have spent nearly a week without food or water waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to decide whether the situation merited a special effort.
In Nicaragua, by the time it was too late, the government realized that many civic groups had spontaneously set up refugee centers that were well organized but teeming with needs, lacking many of the basics.
However, the inflated salaries of the government officials allowed them to close the smoked windows of their $60,000 cars, pull out the Jack Daniels and ease the pain. “Let the international community worry about it,” they said to themselves, as they demonstrated their unwavering patriotism and claimed a lack of funds.
In New Orleans the able poor were allowed to swim to the Superdome or Convention Center, two places usually off bounds to them. However, the hot dogs and popcorn or conference buffets were nowhere in sight. Instead, the basics were just as lacking as in Nicaragua and even worse; there was no organization or even safety for the First World refugees. Then hunger, thirst and illness set in, topped off by the horror of rape and murder, astonishing a world watching the events unfolding on the TV news.
The international community, friends and “dark corners” alike, rushed to offer the assistance that the richest country on Earth couldn’t muster for its own people. “We’ll take any help we can get,” White House officials belatedly replied, “except the 1,586 Cuban doctors.”
Seven years after Mitch, the effects of the hurricane continue to be felt in Nicaragua. Many of the surviving victims are still at square one as the unrelenting marketplace continues to leave them out. In fact, amazingly, there are still people living in the ruins of the 1972 earthquake in the capital, Managua, which is another long and painful story of government negligence and corruption.
In New Orleans the gruesome work has began to tally the body count. Hopefully, it will be less than initial estimates, but there will surely be morgues full of deaths that could have been avoided.
Hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents have been scattered to the winds, increasing the ranks of the unemployed in other urban centers. Many of the poor who survived the deluge in Jazz City are still without identification or proper medical attention and are at the mercy of charity and scant government handouts. If they weren’t on their feet before the hurricane what can be expected in seven years time, even in the USA?
The message is don’t be fooled by Gross Domestic Products, the number of patriots on the Forbes 100 most wealthy list or who has more corporate subsidiaries around the globe. When it comes to natural disasters like Katrina and Mitch, and “leaders” of the calibre of George W. Bush and Arnoldo Aleman, the distance between countries like the US and Nicaragua, or at least their rulers, may be a lot less than meets the eye.
-Arnoldo Aleman is currently under house arrest for stealing everything he could get his hands on during his 5 years in office. He expects to be set free in the near future. For his part, George W. Bush is still riding high in the saddle, although history may not be on his side.