By Dinouk Colombage
The greatest natural disaster to strike out at the third world in modern times was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. On December 26 an underwater earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia triggered a series of highly destructive tsunamis. Countries all around the region were struck; including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and Thailand. As the death toll rose rapidly the international community stepped up their fundraising for relief efforts.
However the greatest effort in the relief process came from the public themselves. In Australia, advertising campaigns were run depicting the countries affected as being left helpless and reliant on the international community. Media outlets in these countries portrayed images of the foreign NGOs travelling to the affected areas assisting in aid distribution. But what all of this “international” coverage failed to show were the efforts on the part of the local populace. By the evening of December 26 people from all over the country were volunteering and assisting in the relief efforts in one way or another. Much of the youth in Colombo, who had shaken off their Christmas hangovers, began volunteering at Red Cross and other such NGOs.
Their jobs varied from packing dry rations and drinking water, to actively collecting goods from house to house and other collection points. Households were also setting up separate collection points to increase the distribution of the goods to the affected regions. The efforts were not restricted to collection and distribution, the authorities were stretched all along the country recovering bodies and attending to the injured. Due to this, the local communities took it upon themselves to help in transporting and burying the dead.
United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, criticised the international community as being ‘stingy’ and ‘slow in donating’. However, he failed to highlight the rapid response of the local populace. By December 28, food convoys had been dispatched to the South and East of the country, while by December 29, the first temporary camps had been setup. Within two weeks, the emergency operations were winding down and long term projects were being implemented.
Less than a year on from the tsunami, the United States of America was struck by Hurricane Katrina. Officials compared it to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The hurricane developed over the Bahamas and caused the most severe damage in New Orleans, Southern Louisiana. By the end of the storm it had been estimated that over 80% of the city and surrounding areas had been flooded. Furthermore, the floodwaters remained for weeks. The greatest criticism that followed the disaster was the slow and often inadequate response on the part of the Bush administration.
Unlike the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina provided the state with prior warning. Officials explained that they had designated areas as safe zones, while it was estimated that the food and water stored would be enough to sustain 15,000 citizens for three days. However, supplies were exhausted within 24 hours. The Federal Emergency Management Agency Director, Michael D. Brown, stated that the authorities were not prepared for the much larger number of refugees. The under prepared nature of the officials came under much criticism due to the prior warning the United States had.
Within two days of the hurricane the national guard arrived with relief packages and provided security. However, members of Congress declared that the regions worst affected, such as New Orleans, had not received any aid. The authorities explained that the prevailing conditions were hindering the relief efforts. They were unable to explain why the more affluent regions received the aid faster than the poorer regions.
However, the one aspect that greatly differed between the relief efforts seen following the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina was the role of the public. When Hurricane Katrina struck much of the populace sought refuge in the pre-designated evacuation zones. Once the storm passed the people chose to remain idly by awaiting the authorities to commence the relief operations. It was only once it became clear that these operations were being delayed due to negligence on the part of the Bush administration that the locals began assisting in these operations. Many critics have explained that it was due to New Orleans being one of the poorer regions which led to the delayed relief. Others have explained that the over-reliance on the authorities was another issue.
Federal Emergency Management Agency analyst, David Gowan, explained that following this disaster the authorities were unable to assist all the affected areas immediately. He added that it was at times like this that ‘the public must step forth and assist in anyway possible.’
Often first world countries are viewed as being sufficiently prepared for natural disasters. Millions of dollars are often invested by these countries in technology designed at preventing any great disruption to everyday life following a disaster. In December 2010 the European continent and the United Kingdom experienced heavy snow and plummeting temperatures. Airports were forced to delay flights, railway lines were shutdown and people had been warned to stay off the road. On December 20, London’s Heathrow Airport was forced to shut down due to the increasing snowfall. Twenty four hours later the snowfall ended and travellers expected to resume their travel. However, further chaos struck as many airlines found that their planes had been frozen to the tarmac preventing any planes from taking off. It took a further day and a half for the authorities to defrost the planes.
Many citizens complained that the underground heating installed by the airport authorities had failed. Despite the high costs in implementing the underground heating officials explained that it would only prevent the planes from freezing to the tarmac. This was the very issue that plagued the airport during those 60 hours. The reliance on technology in these countries has resulted in them not being adequately prepared for such events. The heavy snowfall resulted in many travellers being forced to abandon their plans. Criticism has been levelled at the authorities stating that for an area which experiences yearly snowfall they should have been better prepared.
The ongoing floods in Sri Lanka have seen over a million people affected. Authorities have explained that due to the prevailing weather conditions, the roads have been closed and airlifting supplies is not possible. However, this has not prevented the distribution of aid as locals have taken to using row boats and other methods. Due to the closure of the roads authorities have explained that alternate methods of aid distribution are being followed. Regardless of the outcome, the authorities in Sri Lanka have recognised the need to pursue other methods of aid distribution. Similarly conventional flood prevention techniques have failed. This has seen officials being forced to pursue alternatives in re-enforcing the flooded embankments.
The question that remains is whether or not developed countries are not better prepared for natural disasters or if public opinion expects much more from these countries. Following Hurricane Katrina, the public criticised the government for their apparent slow response. However, it has to be examined whether or not it truly was a slow response or if public expectations were too high. Many people believe that first world countries have the money and technology to prevent natural disasters from affecting them greatly. Although, this has led to a greater reliance on such products. As was seen in the UK when this technology fails, chaos can follow. The community minded efforts seen during the tsunami and the alternate plans implemented during the floods are indicators that third world or developing countries are not helpless without international assistance.