We’ve seen how Sandy pulverized the Jersey Shore. The houses tossed like dice, the cars flipped over, the trees and utility poles scattered like pickup sticks.

Those were the most obvious, but not necessarily the worst impacts of this storm on people’s lives. Kathleen Tierney, a professor of sociology and director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, has studied the impact of disasters for 30 years. She spoke to editorial writer Julie O’Connor about Sandy’s invisible victims, and why America’s inequality makes us more vulnerable to natural disasters.

Q. Poor countries have a harder time recovering from disaster. But what about poor people in the United States?

A. There’s been a lot of research on the concept of social vulnerability. Certainly, poverty is a very large factor. Poor people often live in housing that is not well-maintained – in older structures, in mobile homes that are extremely vulnerable to many types of disasters. They’re likely to be in dwellings that are so badly damaged that people are displaced.

Poor people also tend to be renters. If your rental becomes unlivable, you depend on your landlord to make repairs, or may face a very tight housing market.

Evacuating is quite costly. Poor people often have the types of jobs where, if you don’t show up for work, you don’t get paid. Gas is expensive. If you can’t stay with friends or relatives, staying in a hotel room is expensive. For big storms like Sandy or Katrina, you may have to evacuate a very long way, so it becomes more expensive. As we saw in Katrina, there were many people who didn’t have cars at all, and public transportation failed them.

Q. What other inequalities make people more vulnerable to disaster?

A. Race and income are correlated in the United States. African-Americans tend to make less money. Race also comes into play in more subtle ways, as we saw in Katrina, where people who were disaster victims were unfairly labeled as looters because they were African-American. Some aid groups may hesitate to go into predominately minority communities, and many of these areas aren’t as well-hooked into the power structure.

Your immigration status could determine how you qualify for certain types of aid.

Elderly people, particularly those on a fixed income, are also especially vulnerable. They’re more likely than ever to be living alone.

Disasters affect men and women differently. Women tend to be more risk-averse and willing to evacuate, although men often control the decision-making within households. After disasters, men are more vulnerable to injury as they work on repairs, but women face an increased risk of domestic violence and their care-giving responsibilities typically increase.

Q. Why do researchers say Manhattan is one of the most vulnerable places in the country?

A. Along with the exposure to storm surges and potential physical impact, they’re looking at the built environment, age of the infrastructure and population density. Also, the number of elderly residents, minorities and people with special needs.

Obviously, in Manhattan, there are many well-off people. But there are also a lot of low-income people employed in small businesses and the service industry, lots of people living on an hourly wage, lots of renters and a great racial and ethnic diversity. For non-English-speaking people, access to information is especially difficult.

Q. Some people complained that power was restored to wealthier neighborhoods before public housing or outer boroughs. Is it a class issue, or coincidence?

A. I would explain this in a couple of ways. First, media organizations were located in Manhattan. They saw what was going on in Manhattan and then conveyed an idea of the disaster that was Manhattan-centric.

Another factor is that the worst-hit areas in a disaster are not necessarily the ones that are communicating with authorities, because they’re hit so badly. In 1989, there was a big earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area. It happened to coincide with the World Series, and a game was being played in Candlestick Park in San Francisco. All the media was there. So the earliest pictures that emerged were from San Francisco, and that shaped impressions about what was going on. But the epicenter of the earthquake was actually in Santa Cruz.

Emergency managers know they should be looking for silences. Sometimes, it can take days to discover the hardest-hit areas, and in the meantime, people are miserable.

Q. Staten Island felt neglected by aid workers, but it’s also the least populated borough.

A. It’s an island – they should have known. But in the initial hours after a disaster, the squeaky hinge gets the grease. Look at Hurricane Katrina. It struck on a Sunday night. The levees started breaking on Monday morning. It wasn’t until Tuesday that the federal government acknowledged that the levees had broken. You can compare a disaster in many ways to the fog of war.

Q. Doesn’t it seem as if it’s the homeowners, not poor renters, who lose the most in a storm like Sandy?

A. Homeowners suffer, but they typically have access to insurance. Many of the coastal properties were not even primary residences. Home ownership is associated with socioeconomic status. People who are better off usually have some savings or resources they can draw upon.

If you’re a really low-income person, you’re more invisible. You’re likely to be a renter and in housing that is substandard in one way or another. That can make you very vulnerable. It’s tragic when anyone loses their home. But you’ve got to think about losses as proportional to the assets that people have. The most dramatic photo is not necessarily the person with the most dramatic loss.

Source: The Star Ledger


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