International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001


Disasters and hazards in the Region


Katrina: disaster and affirmation of the status quo

By Allan Lavell

For several decades, and to a greater extent over the last 15 years, a multidisciplinary school of thought has suggested that both the causes and impact of disasters, as well as the risks associated with them, reflect the pre-existing economic, social, cultural, political and institutional structures within countries, regions and areas affected by these phenomena. As a result, they reveal in a clairvoyant and transparent way many fundamental elements and aspects of these structures and their inner functioning. Disasters reflect the current situation of these structures and are an extension of the everyday reality of peoples and their governments. Risk and disasters are “social constructions” in which the physical event (hurricane, earthquake, etc.) is the trigger or detonator but not the unilateral cause - an often unavoidable fact in the face of a theoretically modifiable social and economic context in search of the good of society.

The disaster, or as some would suggest, the catastrophe associated with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the state of Louisiana at large offers further proof of this hypothesis and concept. By this we mean that the explanation of the causes and impact that generated so much dismay and disbelief on the part of professional observers and the public in general (because it occurred in the richest country in the world, which has been most virulent in supporting internationally agreed standards for human rights, and which is most advanced in its democratic and transparent forms of government) may be also applied to a structural, historical, and comprehensive method of analysis and an adequate dose of common sense.

In this article, we attempt to describe concisely some fundamental elements of the context in which a disaster occurred, in order to help explain its causes and effects as well as the responses to it. To a large extent, our arguments are based upon the ideas and works of others, found in multiple writings produced in the heat of the post-impact moment (or rather, in moments of cold reflection), in particular the series of excellent articles produced by the Social Science Research Council of the United States and published on its website (www.ssrc.org) and other articles submitted to RADIX, a website that contributes to critical debate on the topic of disasters.

The scientific, urban, and institutional context of the disaster

Hurricane Katrina struck one year after Hurricane Ivan which, although it did not directly affect New Orleans, was a clear warning about potential hazards in the near or distant future. Numerous reports, scientific assessments, and journalistic accounts in the years prior to Ivan and Katrina clearly indicated the devastating effects that a level 4 or 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale would likely have on the area. Federal authorities promoted a simulation exercise a year earlier because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had placed a disaster of this kind on its list of possible disasters to affect the United States. Estimates predicted that a level 5 hurricane could result in the loss of 60,000 lives. The warnings and simulations were carried out during a period in which federal government resources for structural protection (reinforcing levees) in the city of New Orleans were continuously cut, delayed, or reassigned, due to other priorities for resources in a country that is indebted, operating at a deficit, fiscally irresponsible, and immersed in costly interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Intermittent but continued calls to improve the state and local emergency systems and the need for evacuation plans for the “non-mobile” poor went unheeded.

All of this took place in a period marked by the attacks of September 11, 2001 and a permanent process of de-professionalization, cronyism, and re-militarization within FEMA, focusing on the problem of terrorism to the severe detriment of disaster-related issues. This process was in stark contrast to James Lee Witt's administration of FEMA during the Clinton's presidency, which saw changes and radical improvements to the organization (such as promoting mitigation as a complementary option to preparedness and response) and a constant stimulus for changes and improvements at the state and local levels throughout the country.

This disaster occurred in a city built between a lake and a river, below sea level, near an area of wetlands affected by a long process of degradation. The poverty rate in this area is 28%, which triples the national average. Within the African-American community, which makes up 70% of the city's population, the poverty rate is 33% and much of it is highly concentrated in urban areas. The rates of unemployment, illiteracy and infant mortality also exceed the national average, while the rates of schooling, car ownership, and telephone connectivity fall below the national average. The city's homicide rate is 10 times the national average, and its general crime rate is 3 times the national average. The levels of public and private corruption and problems with law enforcement officials are among the highest in the country.

The city was founded many years ago as a center for trade and exchange, given its location near the ocean and between two bodies of water: a river and a lake. However, over the years the city grew due to tourism activities, and financial and service industries, without taking into consideration the need to reach balance between resources and existing hazards. The city continued to grow under a speculative model of land use, resulting in permanent processes of social and territorial segregation, with the poor and marginalized population located in flood hazard areas. The city of pleasure, fun and speculation also has a high concentration of “the other America” to which vice-presidential candidate John Edwards referred during his campaign: levels of poverty and marginalization so high that some would classify them as “third world” conditions, and yet are found in the wealthiest country on the planet. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana at large lean toward the Democratic Party, in contrast with the current Republican control at the national level.

From context to causes

Context becomes cause. Both impact and response are natural extensions of that context, shaded and fed by the particular circumstances of the social dynamics at the moment of the disaster. The inexplicable becomes transparent and explainable with a multidisciplinary view of existing structures - the everyday reality in motion. The inexplicable becomes obvious.

The predisposition to damages and losses, and the risk faced by the city and its population, were primarily the result of:

1. The history and processes of change in social and urban structures, accentuated by the “anti-urban” policies of the current government and the religious right that supports it, which have led to a greater level of urban blight and the lack of infrastructure in the centers of large cities, in contrast with increased investment in the suburbs of the privileged middle class;
2. The growing marginalization and impoverishment of the most vulnerable populations;
3. The ongoing construction of infrastructure and housing, and the presence of populations in high-risk areas;
4. The continuous degradation of areas surrounding the city and the increase in natural and socio-natural hazards; and,
5. Erroneous calculations of “acceptable risk” which result in low levels of investment in structural and non-structural protection.



The characteristics and elements of responses (or lack thereof) to emergency situations and the disaster itself, including the beginning of a process of rehabilitation and reconstruction that will require more than $200 billion, may be explained by the social, economic, political, institutional, and ideological context:

• Undefined and cautious federalism, as a result of the history of state-federation relations from the Civil War onward, with uncertainty regarding the roles and prerogatives of the federal, state, and local governments;
• The deterioration of competencies within FEMA and the excessive bureaucratization of its procedures for dealing with emergencies, including its inability to introduce flexibility under evolving conditions during the catastrophe, in order to support and meet the needs of the population;
• The absence of a prior process of training, awareness, and actions at the community and local levels, as opposed to a centralized and technocratic vision, and training processes intended exclusively for professionals;
• Structural racism1 (as opposed to psychological racism) that exists in the country in general, and in this city in particular, as well asthe high ratio of poor people. Both factors contribute to a kind of “structural neglect” or abandonment by the federal and local authorities regarding the needs of marginalized or excluded populations. This includes the fact that no mechanisms were in place to persuade people to evacuate or to offer evacuation options to the 120,000 people with no means of transportation and/or no money until payday at the end of the month, or to create social support networks outside the city;
• The military ideology and social control of a government in a country “at war”, which led to a vision of emergency response focused on restoring order and preventing looting (which in many cases was just about people trying to survive), using private security forces in addition to the national guard, as opposed to a response based on human needs and humanitarian aid (of course, no one prevented
the “looting” of public funds for the building and reinforcing the levees, nor will they prevent the “looting” of funds for reconstruction and the corruption that is bound to accompany it). Such a military emphasis led the government to suggest that the military should take the lead
in responding to future disasters, a suggestion that fortunately was rejected by many active and retired military personnel;
• A reconstruction process based on the same precepts that rule the government's everyday actions: the preferential and discretionary granting of contracts for emergency response and reconstruction, as it happens in Iraq, and the exploitation of the immigrant and even undocumented work force for reconstruction efforts at salaries lower than the legal minimum wage; the apparent decentralization of the
reconstruction process but with some characteristics of controlled centralism; political decisions regarding the use of resources (a recent study of federal government appropriations for emergencies and reconstruction over the last 15 years showed that 60% of the millions of dollars used for this purpose was distributed politically based on voting preferences of the affected areas and party affiliation
within the Senate's related committees, influencing in this manner decisions made by FEMA); and,
• Processes that attempt to change the social and political organization of the city, using emergency reconstruction funds to influence who must migrate to other areas as a result of the disaster, with implications for people's lives and their possibilities for making a living; and a process of “gentrifying” the city, reducing the high ratio of poor population and rebuilding for the well-off.

Disasters in the “North” and the “South”

Katrina occurred just weeks before three other disasters of significant magnitude - the Kashmir earthquake, Hurricane Stan in Guatemala, and Hurricane Wilma in Mexico - and just nine months after the Asian Tsunami. It caused a disaster that affected cities and surrounding areas in the wealthiest country in the world (the Northridge and Kobe earthquakes, and the severe flooding in France, England, Germany and Switzerland in the last few years are other examples of disasters in wealthy countries). The other disasters mentioned above affected, as most disasters do, poor “third world” countries.

Considering the recent examples of disasters in both rich and poor countries, let us reflect briefly on the following question regarding the causes and impact of disasters in different nations: Does the increasing rate of disasters in rich countries serve to reject the notion that disasters are essentially “unresolved problems of development” caused by processes of unbalanced development? We would say no. Rather, what happened in New Orleans only serves to substantiate the relationship between disasters and “non-development”.

Where there will be differences is in our own perceptions, attitudes, and interpretations of “unexpected” disasters in rich countries and “expected” disasters in poor countries, in addition to the clear differences with regard to options for recovery in both realities. These two “types” of disasters are to be explained in a differentiated and particular manner: poverty, structural racism, ethnicity, marginalization and discrimination; economic structures and unequal access to the benefits they generate; calculations of “acceptable risk” which are often flawed, discriminatory, and politically decided; the conflict or contradiction between the center and the periphery, central and decentralized actions; military vs. civil society organizations in responses to disasters; the struggle between centralized models of control, authority, decision-making, and action vs. participatory models that strengthen civil society; the biases in the distribution of humanitarian assistance based on political preferences; the importance of capital and social networks, the absence of which contribute to vulnerability and lack of resilience; the benefits and risks that disasters represent for politicians and the manipulation of these situations for one's own benefit.

All of these factors and biases, among others, played a role in these events and in many others. There are more commonalities than differences between disasters in the North and the South. Their generic roots are the same. The differences are only of degree, detail, and perception, not of scientific or practical significance.

On September 25, 2005 Michael Ignatieff, of the Kennedy School of Government, wrote the following in the New York Times Magazine: “A contract of citizenship defines the duties of care that public officials owe to the people of a democratic society.” This contract was broken after Katrina in New Orleans. As a consequence, the rights of many people were violated, and their condition as American citizens was denied in a discriminatory manner. This applies to many other cases of major disasters, as their impacts also include discrimination, irresponsibility and abandonment. Perhaps with Katrina this seemed more obvious because it occurred in a country formally democratic, efficient and advanced. In some other countries this happens on an ongoing basis due to their lack of real democracy, low levels of governance, and discrimination. Hence, it is not surprising that when a catastrophe occurs human rights are easily violated.

Regardless of where they take place, disasters are manifestations of “non-development” or of discriminatory development. Making progress in disaster risk reduction will always entail advancing in the field of human and citizens' rights.

For additional information, please contact:
Allan Lavell


1 After Hurricane Katrina, structural racism has been one of the main issues discussed by social scientists in the United States. This term refers to a phenomenon in which discrimination does not take place intentionally through interactions between individuals and manifested through psychological hatred, but as a result of social and institutional practices and habits that are generally unconscious or are brought about by passive indifference, and are deeply rooted in complex sociopolitical elements. The article that better outlines this debate is included in a series of articles on Hurricane Katrina posted on the website of the Social Science Research Council (see "What Katrina Teaches about the Meaning of Racism", by Nils Gilman, http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Gilman/ <https://mail.chemonics.net/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://understandingka trina.ssrc.org/Gilman/> )