Sandy Hit Hardest the World's Most Vulnerable

By: Cristina López, GAIN

Haiti: Petit Goave after Sandy (1)Almost three weeks have passed since Hurricane Sandy left a trail of devastation in its wake through the Caribbean and U.S. East Coast. Even though the American states of New York and New Jersey were on the receiving end of the most severe portion of the weather event, the long-term consequences of the disaster have been much more devastating for the poverty-stricken countries of the Caribbean. This reflects both the success of some parts of society that has been able to begin adapting to increasingly extreme climate conditions, but also to the challenges that will be faced.

As Journalist Mark Leon Goldberg pointed out in a recent UN Dispatch article, the damages, deaths and displacements caused by Hurricane Sandy are much worse in Haiti than anywhere else. Entire villages were washed into oblivion and the destruction has affected basic sanitation systems, which spreads cholera and reduces drinking water quality. In the long-term, the threats are bound to increase exponentially because of damage to domestic agriculture, the backbone of Haitian food security. According to Jean Debalio Jean-Jacques, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Director, “Everything the peasants had in reserve – corn, tubers – all of it was devastated. Some people had already prepared their fields for winter crops and those were devastated.”

Even though New York faced a direct hit by Sandy, the storm only claimed 48 victims there, whereas the Caribbean’s hit was less direct and 65 people died (with 51 of those in Haiti). The economic development gap between both locations highly accounts for their difference in the scale of natural disaster vulnerability. Focusing on adaptation is far less costly than focusing on prevention, according to an article by prominent Indian journalist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar.

“Not even Al Gore, Green Nobel Laureate, is withdrawing from his coastal residence in Delaware” because of a more competitive hurricane insurance market and far better institutions responsible of enforcing building codes that ensure hurricane-proof construction, Aiyar said. 

Even though technology now allows for better predictions, the experience after Hurricane Sandy should trigger a global conversation about preparing for current climate situations by elevating investments in adaptation. William Hooke, American Meteorological Society Senior Policy Fellow, rightly posted that a lot can be learned by how the airline industry approaches disaster management through innovation and adaptation. After facing equipment or technology failures, commercial airlines never fall into the trap of “rebuilding as before” but instead, change strategy and come out of crises with renovated designs that adapt to current threats. Over time, this strategy has helped reduce air travel accidents drastically.

Many experts share this focus as well. David Roberts, Grist Climate and Energy Reporter, summarized it in under-140-characters on a recent tweet: “The best we can do for ourselves and those alive in the next 50 years is enhance the resilience of our communities & infrastructure.” However, the window of opportunity for adaptation could be closing if prevention continues to be the only focus encouraged by governments and civil society alike. 

2009 publication by Swiss Re warned that beyond 2030, climate change “could be so disruptive that we will face major losses that cannot be averted.” Coping with the impacts after devastation is far more costly than investing smartly and periodically in adaptation and resilience building strategies.

According to a UNFCCC estimate, by 2030 the world could be spending more than $100 billion dollars annually in developing countries to cope with the impacts of climate change. It is important to use the “rebuilding stage” after the disaster to rebuild mindsets and strategies with which societies deal with climate challenges.