from Sept. 14, 2017
Ongoing Hurricane Irma update (I know, everyone has moved on to the next thing, but in Florida and Texas and India and Bangladesh and other places it continues after the news cycle is over)…
Still waiting for power. Generator still chugging away like a champ. Figured out why we don’t have power at my end of the street when most others around us have it – about 20 years ago they buried the power lines for most of the street, but for reasons I don’t understand, stopped a few houses short of the end of the street. So, no surprise, the parts where the cables were buried were not affected much, whereas the other places will be waiting awhile.
This is obviously even more of a problem in other areas of Florida. Rural areas will wait even longer, and those who get their water from wells are particularly hard hit. Lower income areas, where power companies are less likely to bury lines, will also be harder hit. I’m in a nice area of town, and so I compare myself to my neighbors who have power. Those who are in areas where nothing is buried can easily just think that this is the reality of things, and not much can be done about it.
I’m not the first one to say that disasters do not just cause problems, they uncover problems. They uncover inequities in things like infrastructure, in differential government responses, in lots of things. Politicians from Texas that voted against Hurricane Sandy relief when it was needed in New York a few years ago now line up for it when Texas needs it. Should Texas get relief? Absolutely yes. But so should New York.
Disasters also uncover our political philosophies. What I mean by that is that they are lenses for how we think people act, why they act, what their interests and motivating factors are. This is especially obvious when some Christianist bloviator decides that a natural disaster is judgment on “teh gayz” or immigrants or something like that, but it is true more broadly as well.
Example: we think of hurricanes as acts of God. But if disasters uncover problems, that means that the pain that is felt in their wake is a result of decisions made in the past. Decisions like, how are land and building permits structured, and does that drive poorer people to more vulnerable areas like flood-prone flats? Decisions like, do we make assumptions about peoples’ characters, and hence their decisions, that enable us to think of the ones hardest hit as somehow deserving of their fate, as opposed to responding to other kinds of forces?
Joel Osteen was criticized in the media after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, for not opening his arena-sized church for those who had been displaced. His response was that he wasn’t asked. This is another bit of political philosophy uncovered. The evangelical church has often resisted government intervention and programs to help people. The obvious criticism to that is that the Bible speaks long and eloquently about generosity and care for those who need help in society. The response to that has usually been that this is an individual mandate, not a government one. But Osteen’s response makes clear just how vacuous that really is. If you have to wait to be asked to open a church to those who need help, you aren’t following the clear direction of the Bible you claim to follow. This is the fault line between social support and charity – charity lets us choose who we think is deserving, whereas a strong social support network, run well, forestalls that favoritism. Osteen, and most Christianists of this sort, will happily help those who are deserving, in whatever definition they have for that.
So, TL;DR version: I’m fascinated by the problems that disasters uncover, as opposed to the ones they create.