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After the Storm in India and the United States

What can the United States learn from those in south Asia about rebuilding after a natural disaster?

September 19, 2005

What can the United States learn from those in south Asia about rebuilding after a natural disaster?

To the prosperous West, where the rule of law and personal freedom are taken as a matter of right, the developing world is generally viewed as antithesis to good government.

Little good comes out of the developing world and the bad never seems to stop. Corruption, mismanagement, incompetence, ineptitude and similar attributes come to mind whenever we are confronted with the news of yet another disaster in a poor country.

Our eyes glaze, we switch the channel on the TV, we turn the page of our newspaper — we tune out.

With Hurricane Katrina, the spotlight has shifted to the United States' pain, and its response to the disaster that the hurricane caused. It may be anathema to some and outrageous to others, but it behooves us to compare the United States with the developing world at least when it comes to emergency response to catastrophes.

After all, hurricanes, tidal waves, torrential rain and floods devastate Asian countries with monotonous regularity. Hardly a year goes by when Bangladesh, one of the poorest of the poor countries, is not inundated by nature. Yet, the country copes, buries its dead, picks up what is left and moves on.

I clearly remember a vicious cyclone that terrified me nearly 40 years ago in the coastal city of Chittagong. Thousands died and those who survived buried the dead they did not know and hoped that other survivors also gave their own dead, wherever they lay along the devastated coast, a respectful burial.

What remained of the fragile homes of the poor, made of bamboo and straw, was swept away by the tidal wave that followed. Their cattle dead, farm equipment lost, their farms salinated, the survivors faced a bleak future. Their children and malnourished old folks succumbed to hunger and disease.

They did not blame the government for their misery. The government was too poor to protect the people or provide more than token aid.

Roads and telecommunications were practically non-existent. There were no helicopters and few ships or trucks. Most of the boats had capsized. The homeless and the hungry did not go on a rampage. There was no looting, no rapes — and no need for armed soldiers to intimidate the victims into respecting law and decency.

It was a time for charity, compassion and commiseration.

There have been other, more devastating hurricanes, tidal waves and floods that have hit Bangladesh since then. On November 11, 1970, a hurricane followed by a tidal wave killed perhaps a million people and devastated most of the coast of what was then-East Pakistan.

The government in far away West Pakistan was slow to respond — even as there was an outpouring of sympathy and relief aid from the world over.

As a young volunteer, I flew on German helicopters and American helicopters sent from the war in Vietnam delivering relief and supervised drop zones on the ground on Manpura Island where a single plane from the Pakistan Air Force dropped bales of blankets and bundles of tents.

The survivors ran into the drop zone between the figure eight sorties of the plane, and quickly removed and stacked the supplies. There was no looting, no fights, and I don't remember anything ever being stolen. Four months later, East Pakistanis were forced to fight a bloody war of independence to create Bangladesh.

Over the years, the government of Bangladesh has marginally acquired technology and more assets and thousands of local charities have come into existence. Early warning systems have been set up, cyclone shelters built — and emergency relief materials stockpiled.

Today, Bangladeshis have become exceptionally efficient in disaster management. Their resources are pitifully limited, but their ability to cope is extraordinary.

The weather was good and the sky was blue that beautiful morning after Christmas last year when a tsunami spread across the Asian seas, killing an estimated 200,000 people and wreaking havoc in a dozen countries and reaching as far away as Africa.

There was no warning. Most people had never even heard the word, tsunami, let alone know how to survive if hit by one. Hundreds of international governmental and non-governmental agencies donated billions of dollars, particularly to the two most devastated countries — Indonesia and Sri Lanka — where civil wars had been sputtering on for decades.

There was no upsurge of violence, no looting and no anarchy. Whether the misfortune had anything to do with it or not, today, the rebels of Aceh and the government of Indonesia have come to terms and laid aside their guns.

In Sri Lanka, the archenemies agreed to share the relief aid sent by a compassionate world. Approximately 2,500 foreign tourists and three times as many locals died or went missing along the beautiful beaches of Thailand.

In less than six months, the Thais had recovered enough to once again extol the pleasures of vacationing in Phuket. In India, the tide hit the coast all the way from the northeastern state of Tamil Nadu to southwestern Kerala and swept over the Andaman and Nicobar Island 700 miles away. More than 15,000 people were presumed dead and missing.

Response from federal and state governments was immediate. “The Times of India” reported the day after the giant swell, "As in the time of war, in peace too the armed forces once again rose to the occasion. Minutes after killer tsunamis devastated (sic) the coastline of south India, they swung into action." Itself sustaining substantial damage, India sent relief and rescue teams to help Sri Lanka and Maldives. Donations of cash and relief supplies poured in from millions of Indians at home and abroad.

Eight months after the catastrophe, I recently spent a few days in Kovalam, a small coastal town in South India that had suffered moderate damage — seven people killed, scores of houses swept away, 50 boats missing and hundreds of jobs lost. But not for long.

Today, Kovalam's beach is a vision of beauty, with hundreds of colorful boats lined up on the shore, as if for a photo shoot for a glossy travel magazine. Just about every boat is painted in vibrant colors, proclaiming it as a donation from this or that company, or group, or individual, from as near as Chennai to as far away as Michigan and Tulsa and school children in England and Wales.

The sandy beach with waves breaking into white froth against the blue sea and sky, is again an idyll for family outings on Sundays and a far cry from the terror too fresh to forget and too painful to remember.

My wife and I spent a day with a local boy named Sunder, who has been a volunteer and now runs a trust set up to help his community. We drove 50 miles further south, stopping at affected villages at various stages of recovery and talking to boat builders and construction workers.

Everywhere we saw new boats with mounds of nets and other fishing gear. "Now, the fishermen have more assets than before the tsunami," Sunder said. It was heartwarming to see that aid has percolated to the poor. Some victims were still in temporary shelters but durable houses were being built a little more inland from the coast.

We saw community centers under construction and roads being paved. In a newly built knowledge center equipped with computers, and the Internet connecting what is predominantly a fishing community with the world, a group of children were playing computer games in one room.

In another center, a woman was getting interactive adult education. The manager expertly accessed vital weather information on his computer as he proudly briefed us. Now they know more about tremors of the earth than about their own heartbeat. At least the coastal states had quickly learned the lessons from something they had never heard of before it hit them.

Unfortunately, it was a different story in the nearby state of Maharashtra. Six months after the December tidal wave in the south, the city of Mumbai, the premier center of Indian capitalism, was inundated by incessant rain of near biblical proportions.

The lives and livelihood of 20 million people in the city and surrounding areas were disrupted, more than a thousand poor people in slums died as filthy water carried waterborne diseases into their submerged shanties. Economic damage neared a billion dollars.

Politicians and disaster managers blamed the weather and ecologists blamed reckless and unrelenting urbanization engendered by the capitalist culture of the city. There were reports of protest demonstrations against the poor response from the authorities but none of looting and lawlessness.

All through this unprecedented disruption, the financial capital of India went about its business and the Mumbai Stock Exchange index kept setting new record highs almost every day. It may take the poor Mumbaikars years to recover, but the city was never paralyzed like New Orleans.

To be sure, there are overwhelming examples of incompetence, corruption and other problems in the developing world for which there is no excuse. But why did the most powerful country with more resources than any other country in the world fail so tragically to bring a better life in Iraq, and protect its own citizens from the aftermath of Katrina?

In spite of innumerable investigations, interminable debates, and billions of dollars spent, it appears that the country's ability to respond to crises has become worse than it was before 9/11. Should we simply hold our breath and pray that God will spare us future catastrophes, for we have lost our ability to prevent the preventable? Or should we take a deep breath and ask ourselves some very hard questions?

Somewhere along the road to material prosperity and military superiority, faith in technology overcame the nation's faith in humanity. We Americans began to believe that we could solve any problem with technology, money and military might.

We have applied this belief not only in dealing with the rest of the world but also in dealing with our own compatriots. Not every American, of course, but enough of a majority to silence the rest believes that America again has a Manifest Destiny.

When one government agency forbids another to provide assistance to victims of the Katrina disaster or a foreign plane from a friendly country to fly in relief goods, then surely, we have lost our compassion without even knowing it. Religious certitude brooks no spiritual consideration. The soul is the domain of religion, not human feeling, even as we have pitied the poor and donated to charities.

When soldiers, armed to the teeth, forced innocent victims of a natural disaster to leave their homes that the government failed to protect, the American people became their own victims.

Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 may have brought us in the United States sympathy but these events evidently did not increase our wisdom. Enervated by four years of economic and mental strain, we have become apathetic and insensitive. And because we have suffered so much recently is no assurance that nature and our enemies will relent.

We must regain our human values, redefine our place in the community of mankind and acknowledge the supremacy of nature. Only then can we hope to avoid needless death, destruction and pain when the next disaster strikes.