The Politics of Natural Disasters (And the Unnatural Disaster of Politics)
By Joey Gaskins
Oct 16, 2015 - 5:15:57 PM
We have heard the constant refrain echoing across the last week as we have tried to mend the bent and broken lives of our fellow countrymen, “Now is not the time for politics.” Unfortunately, it’s too late.
Politics didn’t ooze into this difficult moment in our collective national consciousness because of something a politician said, or something a newspaper wrote. Natural disasters are as much an “act of God” as they are inherently political.
Does the suggestion that natural disasters are political make you cringe? I think for most of us a natural disaster is distinctly apolitical and should be seen as a time for all of us, no matter the political colours we wear to come together. This could also be because despite the Bahamian obsession with all things political, we often understand “politics” as the messy, agenda-driven and partisan byproduct of the political process-- a process thought of simply as the act of gaining votes.
Politics is more than that. America’s FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency-- not to be confused with our National Emergency Management Agency-- wrote a training guide on the politics of natural disasters. All disasters are political, it says, simply because they require political involvement.
Disasters affect people, they involve public policy before and after the event, and there is a public media interest. How the politics surrounding a particular disaster plays out depends on the nature of the disaster, how public policy is used, the quality of decisions being made and the nature of the political environment.
On the surface there was really nothing unusual about Joaquin, except perhaps the name. Yes the storm was remarkably powerful and it’s development into a hurricane was unusually swift, but slow moving powerful storms aren’t something new. We know that between the months of June and November we are at risk and our experience with Francis and Jean should have been instructive. Perhaps it is the scope and scale of this disaster that is unprecedented for the Bahamas, opening the door to questions about whether the destruction of Joaquin was purely natural. Could the effects of the storm, on person and property, have been mitigated?
NEMA has defended its role in warning inhabitants of the southern islands to prepare for the storm, blaming the media for not doing its part in informing residents. Despite this claim, Director of NEMA, Capt. Stephen Russell, has also admitted that his organization must “ultimately take responsibility for the fact that the vast majority of shelters on the southeastern islands ravaged by hurricane Joaquin did not open,” says the Nassau Guardian.
The actual or apparent disorganization, ineffectiveness or partisan nature of political institutions during a crisis can be just as dangerous as hurricane force winds and tidal surges-- the unnatural disaster of politics. Unfortunately, the current perception of the official disaster response is a product of what seems to be a continued weakness of this administration: communications.
Crisis communications as a discipline has some well established rules and speed, transparency, conveying a sense of awareness and care, and building context around important facts are key elements. When crisis communication efforts begin with the question, “What do we want to say?” then what we are left with is empty, unsettling statements. Instead, communications must make sense of crisis situations, establish clear objectives for the communications effort, consider the existing attitudes of the audience and define a course of action that can influence or alter those attitudes.
Helio Fred Garcia, President of crisis communications firm Logos Consulting reminds us, “...many leaders suffer career-defining blunders because they don’t take communications nearly as seriously as they take most other elements of their jobs... Effective leaders see communication as a critical professional aptitude and work hard at getting it right.” How our government communicates during difficult times should be embedded in our public policy.
Communication also needs to be under-girded by real action and that has to do with the quality of decisions being made. Have the political directorate made decisions in a timely manner? Has the decision making process been a coordinated one? And, have decisions been effective in addressing the ongoing crisis?
NEMA is a statutorily authorized agency under the direction of the cabinet, given the purpose of preparing the Bahamian people before, managing people and resources during and coordinating resources and emergency personnel after a national emergency of any kind. In essence, public policy should set out how these three functions operate during a disaster and NEMA’s job is to execute that policy.
Despite this very important role, public confusion abounds about what NEMA did as Joaquin approached and what it is doing now even a week after the country realized the devastation of the storm. Rumors of the government agency piggybacking on what appears to be the more organized and concerted efforts of private organizations, many of whom came into existence during or right after the hurricane, continues to plague the agency’s work.
The public isn’t alone in its worries. Cabinet minister and member of parliament for MICAL, V. Alfred Grey, has publicly criticized NEMA and the Bahamas Meteorological Office for what he has characterized as the failure to warn residents in the southern islands of the storm.
Grey’s public lambasting of the agency signals at our very difficult political environment. Why was the member of parliament for one of the hardest hit islands not on the plane with her party’s leader and the Cabinet? Why did the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister take separate flights when assessing the damage in southern islands? Knowing full and well that the member for Long Island was involved in private efforts to get relief to her constituents, why did the leader of the opposition make a public statement that was interpreted as a call to redirect donations away from these private efforts?
In the midst of crisis there is always opportunity and in the case of Joaquin the opportunity for our political leaders to show deep, true unity in the face of a national disaster was readily apparent. Furthermore, leveraging the localized knowledge of politicians who’ve campaigned, learned the geography of their constituencies and built real relationships with their constituents should be seen as an invaluable resource. But, does our current political environment allow for this?
On a global stage Joaquin presents the opportunity for legacy building and for the Bahamas to lead the way on climate change, one of humanity’s most pressing issues. Understanding Joaquin within the context of climate change, the storm’s record breaking transition from tropical storm to category four hurricane and its sheer power, combined with the effects of rising sea levels on low-lying Bahamian settlements opens the door to global leadership.
The Bahamas is no stranger to taking up the mantle of leadership on the international stage. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Nassau Accord, the agreement made at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting calling on the South African government to finally end its policy of apartheid. In 1985, black South Africans were at the mercy of a racist regime with developed countries unwilling to act decisively on coming to their aid. Today, developing small island states who are most affected by global warming are at the mercy of developed and developing industrial states who are similarly indecisive on taking substantive action on climate change.
Already, we can hear the beginnings of a conversation about resettlement, led by the deputy leaders of both major political parties. The necessity of more strategic settlement in the Family Islands should not only been seen in terms of making it easier for the government to rebuild and repair infrastructure, but should also take into consideration the unavoidable effects of climate change. Any efforts to rebuild should not be divorced from that larger conversation. As Eric Werner writes on the Harvard International Review blog, “Natural hazards only become disasters when the particular patterns of human settlement leave a population vulnerable to the whims of nature.”
We would like to think that natural disasters like Joaquin exist in an apolitical space, controlled only by the divine or a metaphorical Mother Nature. The truth is, though, what happens before, during and after a disaster is essentially political. Once we come to terms with that we can be more honest about how we prepare for, mitigate and recover from these disasters. Moreover, in the face of devastation there is the valuable opportunity, ways for us to use these difficult times to say something about who we are as Bahamians, prevent similar disasters and to better the lives of our citizens. June isn’t far away. How will things be different next year?
Joey Gaskins is a native of Grand Bahama and a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology. Joey lives in Nassau and is a former part-time lecturer at College of the Bahamas, restaurant owner and is a communications and policy strategy consultant. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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