Exploring The Politics of Natural Disasters

This is the first episode in a special series that Trending Globally will be producing this semester with Watson’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (also known as CLACS). Each episode will focus on a different aspect of society in Latin America and the Caribbean. To start: the politics of natural disasters and emergency management. Storms like Maria and Dorian have done more than cripple islands in the Caribbean; they've brought up important questions of politics, power, and social justice in the region.

We're excited to welcome as a special guest host for this series Dr. Pablo Rodriguez. Dr. Rodriguez is Chair of the Women & Infants Health Care Alliance, Associate Professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown, and the former Medical Director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. He’s also a radio host here in Rhode Island, and one of the most trusted voices covering politics and Latin-x issues in the state.

He spoke with two experts on the Caribbean who are based here at Brown: Patsy Lewis, Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies; and Paget Henry, a sociologist and Professor at Brown.

You can learn more about Watson’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. We know that natural disasters are getting more violent and more frequent. And nowhere is this felt more strongly than in the Caribbean. Storms like Dorian and Maria are coming in shorter and shorter intervals, overpowering emergency relief.

On this episode, we're going to look at the political and social questions brought up by these disasters. How do we reconcile our political system with a climate that pays no attention to national borders? What responsibility do wealthier countries have to developing ones in times of crisis? How do race, class, and geography affect how these events are handled?

This episode is the first in a series we're producing with Watson Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, also known as CLACS. Each episode will focus on a different aspect of society in that part of the world. And we're really excited to have a special guest host for this series, Dr. Pablo Rodriguez.

Dr. Rodriguez is chair of the Women and Infants Health Care Alliance, associate professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, and the former medical director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. He's also a radio host and one of the most trusted voices covering politics and Latinx issues in the state. I don't know when he sleeps, but luckily for us, he was happy to join Trending Globally for this series.

On this episode, he spoke with two experts on the Caribbean-- Patsy Lewis, professor of International and Public Affairs and director of CLACS, and Paget Henry, a sociologist and professor at Brown. Here's Dr. Rodriguez.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Hello everyone, I'm Pablo Rodriguez. In Twenty-Seventeen, the Caribbean experienced two category 5 storms-- Maria and Irma, affecting 11 Caribbean countries. And last year, Hurricane Dorian severely affected some of the small islands above the Bahamas chain.

The Caribbean is susceptible not just to storms, but also to earthquakes. The Twenty-Ten earthquake in Haiti killed hundreds of thousands of people, devastating its economy. Haiti is still struggling to recover from its effects. And Puerto Rico, already devastated by Hurricane Maria, was rocked last year by a powerful earthquake.

I have in the studio with me two members of the faculty at Brown University-- professors Paget Henry from the departments of Sociology and Africana Studies, and Patsy Lewis, interim director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Welcome to the podcast.


PATSY LEWIS: Thank you. Thank you.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: You are both from the Caribbean. So you have experienced hurricanes and the aftermaths of these disasters. What observations do you have about disasters and the peculiar ways in which they operate in small states that might be different than in the larger states in the Caribbean.

PATSY LEWIS: I mean, I come from Grenada. And it's 123 square miles, 100,000 people. When a hurricane happens, it can be a total event.

It can knock out all of your systems, electricity, telephone communication systems. It can damage your roads, your ports, the centers of government, your police force, making it very difficult for you to respond.

In Two Thousand and Four, Hurricane Ivan devastated Grenada, which is where I am from. And the Prime Minister's house was damaged. The Governor General's house was severely damaged. The Prime Minister ended up being evacuated, I think was on a British ship.

So the police, I mean, their families were also affected, their homes. So it was very difficult to respond in that kind of situation.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: In other words, it's like having the disaster that happened in the United States in New Orleans? In a hurricane--


PABLO RODRIGUEZ: --but the entire country being affected.


PABLO RODRIGUEZ: It's a very different feeling. And also, in addition to that, the main sectors of the economy are also knocked out. So in Grenada, it was agriculture, but also tourism. And those are the main planks of the economy.

PATSY LEWIS: So you have us a situation where the country, it takes a while before everything gets moving, before the main industries come back online, for want of a better word.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: The trauma is universal. What is your sense?

PAGET HENRY: Well, you know, I'm from Antigua. And I would say that it's only in more recent times that we've got this experience that we're almost threatened as an entire society. The last time I can recall people talking like that was about a hurricane we had in Nineteen-Fifty.

That this hurricane lived in the memory of people. It changed the housing stock of the island. After that hurricane, so many homes had to be rebuilt that the island looked differently. But since that hurricane, you just never had anything that had that total threatening effect.

That changed first with Hugo. Hugo was so large that when it was 500 miles away from Antigua, there was virtually no road that was close to the sea that you could drive through. We were, like, shocked. You know? So that was the first wake up call that the spell from Nineteen-Fifty right up to about Hugo, we were maybe being lucky, or something was changing.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: And it's interesting that the possibility of hurricanes like Hugo and Louise are increasing as a result of global warming. In the last four years, we've had four years of consecutive Category 5's attacking the Caribbean-- Matthew, Irma, Maria, Michael, Dorian, and Lorenzo. All those are Category 5 hurricanes in four years in a row with highest winds being 185 miles an hour. Nothing can withstand 185 miles an hour wind.

And it's interesting that, with all these hurricanes and all these disasters that have happened in history in the Caribbean, people are resilient. People return. People rebuild. How is this possible? Many people wonder how is it that these people are so resilient, that they can just stay there in the path of these monsters?

PATSY LEWIS: We don't have a choice.


Why do Californians live? Why do they stay in that state?

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: So true. But global warming-- which is something that is not being caused by people in the Caribbean, largely, it's being caused by the larger powers and the larger countries-- is having a dramatic effect on the lives of Caribbean people.

It's very, very difficult. It's very interesting that all these islands are the oldest colonies in America. And some of them are still colonies of other countries. And I'm wondering if there is a difference, if there's any kind of difference between the islands when a disaster hits, between the ones that are independent and the ones that are colonies of other countries?

PAGET HENRY: Well, it varies a lot. For example, when we had the volcano in Montserrat in, what was it, '90, '95?


PAGET HENRY: Yeah. Well, let me tell you. Britain didn't do anything for Montserrat. I mean, we in Antigua, we took in the entire population of Montserrat. They wanted to go to England. Because after all, they're a colony of England.

And the British just point blank refused. Right? When that volcano struck in Montserrat, you would never have known that Britain had-- they just did not step up to the plate. Right?

Now, again, you look at Puerto Rico. I mean, here's the United States, the richest country in the world. And I was just so disappointed and shocked at how Puerto Rico was treated.

I thought, well, you could say in the case of Britain, they're poor now. They're not the big imperial power. They didn't even want to risk taking in all of these Montserratians. They were afraid that some of them were going to hide and stay. You know, all of that stuff.

PATSY LEWIS: 13,000 people, not a lot.

PAGET HENRY: Please! Let me tell you. In their minds--

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: In their minds, too many.

PAGET HENRY: In their minds, it was a lot. OK?


PATSY LEWIS: I think what's very interesting and different about the recent hurricanes is the widespread damage. It occurred across a large number of islands, as you mentioned at the beginning. Yes. And it hit-- to me, it showed about the vastly different governance arrangements, I think, sits in the Caribbean.

You have the independent Caribbean. Dominica, for example, was hit. Then you also had the French Caribbean. You had Saint Martin, with Sint Maarten and St. Martin. And you had the Dutch response and the French response.

But then you also had the British response to their islands. And the French was on the ground pretty quickly, and the Dutch. And there was a long delay from Britain.

And there was a lot of criticism from Anguilla and other islands as were affected, saying this is how Britain thinks about us. Of course, Britain had their own reasons why they couldn't be as responsive. And of course, Puerto Rico, as you mentioned. So you expect that the countries that are still constitutionally tied to countries with resources would actually get help.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Should fare better.

PATSY LEWIS: And that didn't happen. And it invites us to reflect more broadly on who responds first, who are the people who respond? Because whenever you hear about hurricanes, it's always the international response, what the US is doing, what Britain is doing, the EU is doing. But the first response is local.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: That's always.


PATSY LEWIS: Right? And that's always undervalued or devalued. The first response is local. Caribbean people don't sit down and wait on other people to come and do things that they can do themselves. They have to.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: In Puerto Rico, it has changed even further. What has happened in Puerto Rico is, after the poor response by the federal government to Maria, the delay in funding, the delay in the hospital ship to getting there, the delay in re-establishing communications and electricity, this created a sense of we cannot depend on the government. That was followed by corruption, by a number of warehouses found with supplies years later and moneys being dispersed in a inappropriate way.

And the last disaster, the earthquake that happened Dec. 28 of last year, the population literally decided not to count on the government. And it created kind of a disorganized response. Because when you have a lot of private people just trying to bring supplies to areas that are affected, it's a little bit disorganized. But it shows how people have lost some of the trust in the government.

PATSY LEWIS: Interestingly, we never had that. Because we always knew that our government's responses would be limited. So the regional space-- we had the local space, and the regional space is also a very important pool of support that kicks into gear long before the international people come.

And sometimes, it's spontaneous, like when Vincentians cooked meals and sent those on little boats to Grenadians. So that they didn't know, so they would have a hot meal. And in Trinidad, their government sent its police to Grenada to help to keep some kind of support, When The Jamaican government sends the JDF to Haiti, to Grenada, to wherever there are hurricanes.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Puerto Rico did not have supplies for Maria because they had given most of their supplies to the other islands as a result of Irma two weeks before.

PATSY LEWIS: Exactly. So the Caribbeans are strong, both in terms of organization, because you have the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, CDEMA. They also have the regional response mechanism. So the region has a very important pool of response.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: In spite of the resiliency of people in the region, disasters like this tend to exacerbate inequality. The people that are least able to survive a disaster, and in this case, repeated disasters, end up just losing all their assets. The people that have assets already end up acquiring more. And this is something that has happened throughout the Caribbean. So there's a sense that the disasters have actually made the situation worse for inequality.

There's also the racial component. In the Bahamas, when we had Dorian and we had all these people in a place where they could not survive, the United States blocked access, closed the movement that had been completely reciprocal all the time. But oh, now it's a disaster? Now you can't come in. How do you see this racial aspect and this inequality aspect of disasters in the Caribbean?

PAGET HENRY: Well, I think that they definitely have been exaggerated in the Trump era. The broad turn to the right, I think, has heightened racial tensions. But I think the immigration policies pursued by the Trump administration has taken them even higher. That sort of fanned these flames of xenophobia.

So that you have people saying things about immigrants that they wouldn't say before. So of course, if there's a disaster, and people need to move, even if it's for a short period of time, they get read in this highly racialized narrative of immigrants. And you get these very bad decisions.

PATSY LEWIS: What we saw in the Bahamas in particular was the vulnerability of undocumented migrants in a disaster. Haitians in the Bahamas in particular were reluctant to reveal themselves, were reluctant to be counted, were in marginal housing. You have informal settlements of migrants. But also in our countries, you have informal settlements. You have people without titles to land and so on who stand to lose their access.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: And not just that, they live in conditions that are more susceptible to damage from the hurricanes.


PABLO RODRIGUEZ: And they live in houses that cannot withstand 30 mile an hour wind, much less than 185 miles an hour.

PATSY LEWIS: Yes. And even undocumented immigrant, you don't have the kind of family support and of the entire community, as happened in the Bahamas where a significant community on that island is affected. Then you really don't have the resources to get supported in a way you would if you had long deep roots.

Other people who are vulnerable are the poor, female-headed households with children, the disabled. So people who are vulnerable at the best of times are even more so in a disaster.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: And in the Caribbean, 35% of households are headed by women.

PATSY LEWIS: Yeah. And we have--

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: It's a large percentage. The interesting part about the Bahamian situation is that technically everyone was undocumented after the hurricane. No one had documents. No one had--

PATSY LEWIS: Hurricanes do that.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Hurricanes take everything away. And like you said, the first ships, I'm sure none of those people had documents.


PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Because the hurricane took everything. It was when that ship full of Black people was about to take off. I mean, they were already in the boat.

PATSY LEWIS: They were already in the boat.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: This is not something that, you know, they were thinking about it. No. They were already in the boat. And they actually just removed them from the boat. And how did they decide which ones leave and which ones stay?

The same thing is happening in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico right now, there is a push for private investment to come in. There are tax treaties, tax laws that have been passed in Puerto Rico that basically only charge 4% taxes for American companies coming in. And the owners don't even pay any capital gains or anything like that. So thousands of billionaires are moving into Puerto Rico and acquiring land that has been wiped by the hurricane, where people don't have the ability to reconstruct.

And Puerto Rico has also the colonial legacy of the Jones Act.


PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Which is an act in Nineteen-Twenty that forced the island to only be able to receive goods by ship. It's an island. But those ships have to be American, have to be crewed by American. And if it's coming from another country, from the Dominican Republic, which is next door, they have to go first to Jacksonville, change ships, and then be shipped to Puerto Rico. That's what happened to many of the supplies.

PAGET HENRY: Of course.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: That the American republic wanted to bring to the island. And they couldn't. Because of the Jones Act.

PAGET HENRY: Which is so ironic. Because you know that one of the reasons for the American Revolution was they were fighting against the Navigation Act.


PAGET HENRY: Yeah. The Navigation Act required that everything arriving there arrived in British ships. So the famous Boston Tea Party, all of that. And then they turn around and they do the same thing to Puerto Rico.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: The worst part about the Jones Act right now, not just for Puerto Rico, but for Hawaii and anything that has to go by ship from state to state, is the fact that it benefits a very miniscule number of people. This is not going to affect the economy of the United States if all of a sudden the Jones Act is abolished. But it's protecting a very, very small minority of people based on the law that was created in Nineteen-Twenty when there was war and there was a concern that we're not going to have any ships.

PATSY LEWIS: I wanted to come back to the point of disaster capitalism. Because it has a name. That the people who rush in and make money off the backs of the suffering of others. But accompanied with that, which we don't really focus on, is the way in which the international organizations and the NGOs, the ones who help, hold their entrance into these situations.

Their interventions tend to marginalize people on the ground. Because there is an assumption of a lack of capacity. So whenever a disaster happens in a supposedly poor country, the assumption is they can't help themselves. They know nothing.

So they bring in their water engineers, their civil engineers. They bring in all manner of expertise. And the irony is that you do have people like that. I remember a situation in Grenada where somebody who was a civil engineer, used to be a head of the water company, was unemployed.

But was he used when the hurricane? No! Experts came in. And eventually, you might get a consultancy job if you're lucky, under somebody else's name.

So there are ways in which you are marginalized. You are pauperized in a sense in terms of how you're seen, your intellect. The assumption is that you're local, you're parochial. You can't do anything.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: It's what happened in Puerto Rico also after Maria where the companies that came in to do the reconstruction made themselves millionaires. And many of them just didn't even do the job. And one of the warehouses that was just found a couple of weeks ago full of supplies was from an American company from Oklahoma who had about $160 million contract and had millions of dollars of supplies just wasted and lost because they already got the money.

And they were supposed to be building houses and building roofs for people. And there are still thousands of people in Puerto Rico, three years after Maria, almost three years after Maria, still living under blue tarps.

PATSY LEWIS: And you know the problem with that? When you bring in people, and you bring in expertise, you have high levels of unemployment in the wake of a disaster. So basically, instead of finding ways to put people back to work and have them involved in a process, when you sideline them, you also sideline them from economic activities, creating tremendous hardship.

PAGET HENRY: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. And it's the case in Puerto Rico right now. People say, why am I going to stay here? And there's estimates as many as half a million people have left the island since Maria, simply because there's no opportunity in the island to survive. So these disasters have changed the character of the islands throughout the years.

And it's something that doesn't get as much attention. It gets a lot of attention when the disaster is happening. But the aftermath is something that people stop thinking about. And it's just the problem of those who remain behind.

PAGET HENRY: Well, let's hope that that rebellious spirit that we've always had in the Caribbean, we can never predict when it will erupt, but it has to erupt sometime soon if the region is to once again begin to move forward. You know? I think there's very much a spirit of pessimism, immobility in the region at the moment. People feeling as though the time for assertive action has passed.

And well, you have no choice. You just sort of go along with what the big boys say to do. And that spirit of opposition and a willingness to try alternative [? paths ?] that may be more appropriate for the region. And not only that, but the fact that they reflect your ideas. They're coming out of the region. These are our ideas.

I think at the moment, we have lost confidence in that way of thinking. But when you look at the history of the region, it always comes back.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: It's interesting that in Puerto Rico, the distrust of government has translated into activism. So you have a lot of nongovernmental organizations getting more involved, groups of people getting involved, groups of conversation. I mean, when I was growing up I never heard of this. So they are having town meetings where they are talking about what are the next steps.

And we know that last year the governor was removed--

PAGET HENRY: Right. Right. Right.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: --the governor of Puerto Rico-- as a result of activism by the people. So there is a movement. There is a unity that disaster brings that has created a different attitude, at least in the island of Puerto Rico, as a result of Maria and as a result of the disastrous response by not just the federal government, by the local government, as well.

PATSY LEWIS: But I think your point of a sense of helplessness and hopelessness is not just unique to the Caribbean. I think that that has been global. Where the feeling that there is no other way to private ownership, the retreat of the state, in a sense, the absence of people, more technocratic government by the IMF and the World Bank and the so-called development partners, which really sideline ordinary people.

But obviously this is changing. Globally, this is changing. And I agree that the Caribbean hasn't, really-- maybe apart from Haiti-- the Caribbean really hasn't picked up on those. We tend to be a little behind sometimes. But I think that the moment is coming where we ought to rethink where we are and what our possibilities are. And of course, we have to do this as a region.

But we also have to reflect on the fact that we have not had a kind of transformation of relationships that allow us to be truly independent. And it comes back to who owns what. Who owns our resources? How are those exploited? So there's a big discussion we can have over that.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: And those kinds of issues are especially marked by disasters, by the hurricanes. So in the end, what we really are looking for is not just control of resources, or control of the political process or the design, but more the control of our destiny--

PATSY LEWIS: And our minds, our intellect.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: --and our minds. Absolutely.


And I believe that the resiliency of the Caribbean throughout history demonstrate that we're prepared.

PAGET HENRY: Yes. It's going to come back.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: It's going to come back.

PAGET HENRY: It's going to come back. Yes.

PABLO RODRIGUEZ: Well, I want to thank Professor Henry and Patsy Lewis for this incredible conversation. And hopefully, the listeners will come out knowing a little bit more about the Caribbean and how disasters shaped lives for the positive and the negative for this important region of the world.

PAGET HENRY: Well, thank you.

PATSY LEWIS: And thanks to Watson.

PAGET HENRY: Absolutely.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by Dan Richards, Jackson Cantrell, and Ailton Barbosa. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.

If you like what you hear, leave us a rating and review on iTunes. It really helps others find the show. For more information about this and other shows, go to watson.brown.edu. Thanks for listening. And tune in in two weeks for another episode of Trending Globally.

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