HARRINGTON: Hurricane season reminder of racial bias in relief efforts


Natural disasters highlight the disparity of death tolls and storm damage.

A hurricane is one of the most indiscriminately destructive natural forces on the planet. Each year, violent winds and rapid flooding buffet the Atlantic coastline while causing massive damage to both human lives and property. The hurricane season dominates the airwaves, particularly when a storm threatens to do severe damage upon landfall. First responders, volunteer workers and branches of the United States military are all integral and cooperative elements of hurricane relief each and every year.

Considering the inevitability of these natural disasters, the disparity of death tolls of recent hurricanes highlights an alarming ethnocentric bias in the handling of storm damages.

One year ago, Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico. In its awesome and frightening wake, the storm claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people. While initial estimates placed the death toll at 64, this number grew rapidly in the weeks and months following the storm’s initial landfall. So why the disparity in death tolls? The answer is clear: Puerto Rican citizens are not valued as their fellow Americans on the mainland.

This hurricane killed more American citizens than the Sept. 11 attacks, yet has faded from the forefront of our collective social memory. In one of the least surprising statements of the year, President Donald Trump referred to the United States government’s response to the disaster in Puerto Rico as “an incredible, unsung success.

It should raise more than a few eyebrows that the president is so focused on his administration’s appalling handling of the storm in Puerto Rico while the American South braces itself against Hurricane Florence. Florence, smaller than the storm that caused monumental damages to the island of Puerto Rico, was initially a Category 1 hurricane. A primary difference between the storms is the reported death tolls. Hurricane Florence has accounted for a minimum of 25 fatalities, less than half of the initial casualty reports of Hurricane Maria, according to CBSN.

What a shameful state of affairs this country is in for such an unmitigated catastrophe of bureaucratic muddling, incompetent leadership and ethnocentrism to be claimed an “unsung success.” When the levees broke in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the country watched in horror as the Big Easy felt the wrath of Mother Nature. The handling of the 2005 hurricane by Federal Emergency Management Agency and then-president George W. Bush was a black mark on an already embarrassment-ridden presidency, and the repercussions of this failure were quick to manifest.

One of the greatest tragedies of Hurricane Maria is its almost impermanence in the public discourse. With scandal after scandal dominating the headlines, the thousands of lives lost in during Hurricane Maria are lost to the 24-hour news cycle.

Trump would later go on to claim that his political enemies were inflating the number of casualties for political purposes. Through his own unique brand of shameless self-victimization, the President of the United States is actively spreading misinformation regarding the number of citizens who died under his administration’s oversight.

Think of the other noteworthy hurricanes of the past decade and their respective body counts. Hurricane Harvey, for example, hit the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm and unleashed 60 inches of rain onto the city of Houston and the surrounding areas. Both Hurricanes Maria and Harvey struck during the same storm season in a relatively similar geographic region. They were both featured heavily on televised news and the aftereffects of each storm lingered long in each area of the country.

The resources and capabilities to help restore, or at the very least stabilize, the territory of Puerto Rico were more than available to the President and his administration. What was not present was an urgency and desire to care for our neighbors and fellow citizens who have been subject to great horror and suffering at the hands of nature.

As the 2018 hurricane season begins, controversy has swelled around the president’s commentary. Meanwhile, the discussion of humanitarian failures in Puerto Rico has taken the backseat to the burning, big-top circus tent of the executive branch that leads this country.

In the wake of George W. Bush’s colossal failures in New Orleans, there was media uproar and electoral pushback against the GOP for the administration’s mishandling of the storm relief effort. That indignation and anger should be as fiercely burning today as it was in 2005. No American should be cognizant of their government’s outright dismissal of thousands of casualties and rest easily.

Whether that anger manifests as volunteering aid to those affected by these natural tragedies or electing politicians who will protect and support their constituencies regardless of race, action is needed and needed now. The unanswered deaths of thousands of American citizens is an embarrassment to not only this country, but to common decency.