Have you noticed?
For at least a decade, we’ve been experiencing ever more weather events that are truly extreme in scale. Monster storms, immense floods, wild fires, draught… and an intensifying pattern of record breaking hot weather.
What this amounts to is a perfect swirl of global scale human challenges. In just the past few months, on the Southeast coast of the U.S. and in the Caribbean, an unprecedented succession of extreme hurricanes have caused several hundred billion of dollars in damage to Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.
These events have overwhelmed the news cycles, which means that the unprecedented number of wildfires in the American West got virtually no news coverage at all. Extreme weather events in Asia and Africa that happened at the same time, affecting millions of people, also got no coverage.
Disaster fatigue is basically a numbing of compassion, caused by constant exposure to too many massive scale calamities in too many places.
At this moment, Puerto Rico is dealing with the aftermath of a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, a category five monster of a storm. Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean. It is a U.S. territory. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens…all 3.5 million of them. At this moment, weeks after the storm passed, most Puerto Ricans are in desperate straits. No power. Not enough clean water, food, and shelter. Schools, hospitals, and much of island’s infrastructure – roads, the power grid, water and sewage systems – are destroyed. It will take years and tens of billions of dollars to restore normal life to Puerto Rico.
Extreme weather is happening all over the planet… and more often. Literally billions of planetary citizens are affected. As time goes on, with the human population of our Earth at nearly 7.5 billion in 2017, and headed to 10 or even 12 billion by the end of this century, things will only get worse… much, much worse.
Every time a massive flood hammers a city like Houston…every time wild fires take out thousands of homes in California…every time a monster hurricane like Maria rolls over and flattens a Puerto Rico, tens of thousands to as many as several million people are affected. First, these people need emergency help with food, water, and medical support. After that comes the need for huge amounts of money to restore their lives to a semblance of what existed before disaster struck. In the case of Puerto Rico, estimates as high as 300 billion dollars have been suggested as the cost to restore the infrastructure and homes for the island’s 3.5 million citizens.
In the next few years, we could see global disaster relief exceeding a trillion dollars annually. Where is that money going to come from?
Probably two-thirds of the world’s people live in lesser developed nations. These are places that don’t have money to provide adequate food and water even in the best of years. When you have a massive storm like Super Typhoon Haiyan that causes unprecedented misery and destruction in a place like the Philippines, where does the money come from to make things right?
This is how disaster fatigue sets in. Multi-billion dollar disasters have become common… many extreme weather events strike poor nations like the Philippines that don’t have the money to adequately recover when disaster strikes. When it happens over and over again, as it is happening now, the well of compassion runs dry.
The current U.S. response to disaster has become jaded. Our government can’t even muster an adequate response to disasters that are homegrown. We have a Congress that is far more interested in handing out massive tax cuts to the rich than it is helping people pounded by disaster.
It’s worth repeating that the magnitude of and the number of fire, flood, draught, and super storm disasters are increasing. Many of these weather events are driven by climate change, which our current government isn’t even willing to acknowledge.
So, what’s a caring citizen to do?
It starts with voting. Vote in our elections, and when you vote, choose the candidate that wants to deal with climate change, not deny that it’s real. It is real. When you have 98% of the world’s atmospheric scientists telling you it’s real, you should believe them. Vote for candidates that understand the importance of government’s regulatory function. We need to put building codes in place to assure structures are built to high standards. We need to assign high value to government’s role in disaster relief. We need to recognize the critical importance of foreign aid, when disaster strikes in other parts of our planet. Vote for candidates that put the public interest first.
Here are a few other suggestions…
- Government money for restoration should come with standards for rebuilding that make infrastructure and buildings more resilient and able to withstand more powerful weather systems.
- Reconstruction should be tightly restricted in areas that are proven to be prone to flooding.
- FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Administration – should be given a bigger budget and should have the resources needed to assure an adequate response in the face of disaster.
- R & D should focus on designing systems and structures able to cope with powerful weather systems.
- Compassion for people and natural systems in need should be nurtured, rather than ignored simply because disasters happen more often
- Vulture capitalism in the aftermath of disaster should be strictly regulated. Financial predators should not be allowed to prey on the misery that comes as a consequence of disaster.
Becoming callous and indifferent to the suffering of others is what happens with disaster fatigue. We humans have unleashed forces that are making deadly disaster happen more often. It’s worth remembering that there is no place that is entirely immune to disaster. It can happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone. Better to prepare adequately and be safe, than sorry.