Sunday, October 09, 2005

Hurricanes and the poor

The Miami Herald carries a story today pointing out that, like Hurricane Katrina, the impact of the flooding from Hurricane Stan was felt disproportionately by the poor and disenfranchised. The article starts out this way:

SAN MARCOS LEMPA, El Salvador - Blanca Imelda Tavez was still praying for the victims of Hurricane Katrina when Hurricane Stan's waters hit her home.

The Lempa River overflowed its banks late Sunday and flooded every single house along its banks. It took her TV set -- where she had been watching the devastating images from New Orleans -- her bed, clothes and the family cornfield.

Stan's floods and mudslides took 65 lives, left 65,000 refugees and destroyed 12 rural communities in El Salvador, still recovering from the devastating earthquakes of 2001. In neighboring Guatemala, they left nearly 200 dead.

But above all Stan highlighted the vulnerability of people like Tavez, who are left homeless because they are so poor that they can only afford land on the edges of flood-prone rivers.

The poor will return to the low-lying flood plains, to the unstable hillsides, and to the sides of creeks because they have nowhere else to go. Coincidentally, this week I was reading a book titled, Like Grains of Wheat: A Spirituality of Solidarity and came across the following passage describing the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The words apply to this week's tragedies equally well:
This community also understood how much the disaster was worsened by the long legacy of injustice, repression, and exploitation in these countries. They understood why the poor people who had been forced to live in areas most vulnerable to natural disasters were once again the vast majority of dead, injured, and homeless. They understood how the deforestation and overdevelopment had altered the climate of the region and left the earth vulnerable to the landslides and flooding caused by seven days of torrential rain.

Solidarity means more than giving food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless; it also means addressing the questions of why they are hungry and homeless.
M. Swedish and M. Dennis, Like Grains of Wheat: A Spirituality of Solidarity (Orbis Books, 2004).

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