Extremes of nature, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can occur almost anywhere. Their effect can be anything from a nuisance–the storm that ruins the seaside vacation–to the tsunami that takes more than a quarter of a million lives and ruins the livelihoods of countless more. Human losses are the most tragic of these disasters’ many consequences, and we wait now, aghast at the images in the news media, wondering just how many people have died. How many children were in collapsed schools? How many people were buried in hospital beds?
But the magnitude of a natural extreme is a weak guide to the effect it will have. In California, the Landers earthquake of 1992 and the Northridge earthquake of 1994 were of about the same magnitude as the earthquake that struck near Port-au-Prince–yet only 75 people died in those events.
Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do. And the most poorly constructed buildings are inevitably home to the very poorest people. Homes and other structures built far below the standards of safe building codes – if codes exist, are known about or enforced – are put up by people who lack the resources to build minimally safe structures even if they could.
The rapidly expanding urban slums encircling cities throughout the world are ready to kill their occupants at the slightest shaking or downpour. Often built in marginal lands, like barely reclaimed swamps and steep hillsides, they are the most dangerous places on earth to live.
In Haiti, even hotels and government buildings were constructed unsafely. A magnitude 7.0 earthquake almost anywhere is sure to cause damage and to cost lives. In Port-au-Prince, it has caused a humanitarian catastrophe. Of course, some well-to-do people have died, but the great majority are sure to be the poorest people, in one of the poorest places on earth. In the final analysis, poverty is the true killer.
How long will recovery take? This year will mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. If that disaster can be our teacher, the answer is: it depends on who you are. Just as some people are more likely to become disaster victims, some are more likely to restore their lives in the aftermath.
According to the latest Brookings-GNOC New Orleans Index, that city’s central business district has grown 4%. At the same time, the Lower Ninth Ward has shrunk 80%. Is it necessary to say which neighborhood is wealthier? Take a struggling city, deeply divided along racial and economic lines, and strike it a blow by nature’s hand. The outcome, it seems, will be an even more divided city. The rich will manage; the poor cannot.
Yes, the levee failures in New Orleans turned a natural event into a true catastrophe, but the industrial canals, built for commerce through the poorest part of the city early last century imperiled people who benefited little from the ship traffic that passed through their neighborhoods. The poor construction and maintenance of levees, and the people they put at risk, are echoed chillingly by the poorly constructed dwellings of Port-au-Prince.
It’s too late to change the inequality that led to tragedy in both New Orleans and Port-au-Prince. But it’s not too late, even in New Orleans, to repair what has been done. President Obama can use his powers to allocate resources necessary to achieve equitable recovery in both cities. A stimulus package is needed to restart both cities, just like the stimulus package that restarted the U.S. economy.
In Haiti, it is not just the president’s palace that needs rebuilding; we need to rebuild the neighborhoods and businesses of the poor, with safe, strong buildings and financial aid. A recovery effort should do more than put things back to where they were, especially for the poor. We should invigorate these cities. It’s not the way anybody would choose for this to happen, but at this point a stimulus package would give Haitians the chance of a new start. Otherwise, we risk a situation in Port-au-Prince even worse than that in New Orleans. In Haiti, violent unrest is never far below the surface. Exacerbating the social divide through inequitable recovery could lead to a second, even more profound, tragedy.
John Mutter is a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, professor at Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and founder of the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List. A version of this piece appeared previously at CNN.com.