“There is no such thing as a natural disaster,” is the thought-provoking title of a book about Hurricane Katrina, but the point could apply to many recent tragedies, including the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last week. Much of the recent news media coverage has emphasized how governments protect people from the initial impact of disasters through strict regulations and building codes – and this is surely true – but it also should be emphasized that government welfare institutions play a critical role in helping people to get back on their feet in the aftermath.
In this post, I want to make three broad points about the social and economic impact of natural disasters, mainly drawing on the American experience with Hurricane Katrina. The institutions and social structures in Japan are quite different than here, so time will tell whether the Japanese find themselves experiencing the same uneven recovery.
The Burden of Natural Disasters Falls More Acutely on the Already Disadvantaged
Natural disasters evoke a sense of social solidarity, and this is particularly likely to be the case in Japan, with a strong collective ethos. In some sense, natural disasters are a great equalizer since they do not discriminate between rich and poor, and inflict misery in seemingly equal proportion on the haves and have nots. What is unequal between social groups are the private forms of insurance – formal and informal – that people are able to command to help them rebound after disasters.
Research conducted in the initial aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, shows that race and class both independently shaped the ability of individuals to recover from the disaster – and that whites had more social support from friends and family and more support from employers – which enabled them to obtain private income much more readily following the disaster than their black counterparts.
In Japan, employers have traditionally formed an important welfare structure (although the corporate safety net was badly frayed over the past two years as many Japanese corporations restructured and attempted to become leaner), but it is unclear how corporations will be able to assist their displaced workers during a period when they are experiencing their own hardship.
Government Programs that Are Universal and Easy to Administer Function Best After Disasters
One of the lessons from Hurricane Katrina is that many government programs became bogged down due to administrative complexity and a lack of capacity in the wake of a disaster. The classic example is housing assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was rightfully criticized for dragging out the processing of housing claims that would allow people to return and rebuild in the weeks following the storm. This lack of leadership arguably prolonged and worsened the prospects for recovery in the Gulf Coast, since it created additional uncertainty and discouraged people from taking a gamble on rebuilding.
But the government response to Hurricane Katrina was not bad across the board. For example, social security implemented rapid response measures to provide payments to victims of the disaster that were cut off from the banking system. Similar rapid enrollment and administrative simplification measures were taken for the federal food stamps program which arguably helped to keep families fed in the months following the disaster. The general lesson is that if welfare state programs already have the ability to deploy teams to quickly process and disburse benefits, then they are likely to be much more effective at reaching vulnerable populations. The relative paucity of the American safety net made it challenging for some programs to function, but there is little information in the western media thus far about how the Japanese bureaucracy is faring.
The Process of Rebuilding and Rebounding often Outlasts Political Attention
The height of political attention to natural disasters coincides with the media cycle that puts the anguished victims of the disaster on the front page, but the actual suffering of victims often drags on for months and even years. In the case of Hurricane Katrina sustained media attention waned after one year, and very little media attention was expended on efforts to mitigate or prevent the effect of future disasters. This unfortunately had the effect of giving outsized attention to superficial signs of recovery, while failing to address lingering inequality and continuing sources of vulnerability to future disasters (both of which were revealed in the wake of the Gulf oil spill last year).
A potential lesson from Hurricane Katrina is for advocates for disadvantaged populations to jump ahead of media coverage and to work diligently to establish public support for large scale initiatives that will aid displaced victims in the month following the disaster. After this initial window, achieving substantial change becomes very difficult. Thus, even though the disaster in Japan is far from stabilizing, it is not too soon to begin laying the groundwork for an extensive recovery package.