Supporting a Just Recovery by Looking Beyond Basic Statistics

By Michelle DePass, Director, Tishman Environment and Design Center and Jennifer Santos Ramirez, Research Assistant, Tishman Environment and Design Center

While visiting Puerto Rico on Tuesday, President Trump told the press that local and federal officials “can be very proud” of their response to Hurricane Maria and ‘low’ loss of life."Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous – hundreds and hundreds of people that died – and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering ... no one has ever seen anything like this," President Trump said.

Now the backlash against his statements has been strong, but instead of jumping on the bandwagon and condemning his comments, we will try to illuminate them as exemplary of a serious problem with how we think in terms of disaster response and recovery today.Most people think in terms of lives lost during a natural disaster – death count has become an important figure in the media when describing devastation – it’s not just used by politicians and officials. But when our society thinks of devastation in terms of lives lost or even in terms of physical destruction of property we are not doing true justice to the full implications and consequences of these natural disasters.When we use just a couple statistics to frame a disaster we are not looking back at the decades of neglect, socioeconomic inequality, lack of funding for infrastructure, environmental pollution and political corruption that have compounded over time to make communities or, in this case, an entire island like Puerto Rico, the most vulnerable to natural disasters.

When we compare the impacts of different storms in different places, we are not looking at the present time; the mental and emotional distress of entire peoples that are not only in need of basic necessities, but also in need of ongoing emotional support and understanding. The disaster was not just the Hurricane passing over the island, but is now a part of every waking moment of their lives.

Considering just a simple analysis of property destruction, we are not looking at the future and the fact that it will take years (not days, nor months) to get back to any sense of normalcy for these communities and during this time, children will continue to live in instability, adults will continue to live without income or shelter or any sense of self, and institutions will continue to struggle to provide the basic supports that these communities need.When we look at death count, we are looking at such a narrow slice of the devastation that environmental disasters incur, but this number is tangible, so the convenience of using it as a measure is understandable. Unfortunately, narrow measures won’t solve the problems of longstanding climate change, won’t help us to accurately and appropriately respond to disasters, and won’t get back all that was lost for the people of Puerto Rico.

If the President actually looked deeply at the consequences of the devastation of Katrina – he would see this clear as day. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a group of philanthropic foundations and impacted Gulf residents recognized the need for an inclusive, bottom-up disaster response and created a participatory network of local, grassroots organizations and activists who helped craft the response and disburse philanthropic funds to front-line communities. This resulted in the creation of the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, a uniquely structured grant-making fund that disbursed $2.7 million to 140 organizations working in housing and urban planning, youth, culture and arts, worker and day laborer rights, environment, health and green rebuilding across the southeastern US.[1] Response and recovery lasted well past a decade in the regions affected, and life has never been the same for those who survived and who lived in the most vulnerable communities – those hit hardest by Katrina.

The same will be true for those in Puerto Rico if we don’t start looking at the past, present and future and start thinking about impacts outside of the death toll. We must hold the government accountable for the way it thinks about and treats its people. It is the federal government’s responsibility to be involved in rapid response, and to come to the aid of its citizens. There are citizens in this country in need. The response must include passing funding bills that will finance equitable recovery and give FEMA the money to support emergency aid, one storm after another. This hurricane season, the EPA cop is not on the block. Dollars and aid will come to communities, but there will be long-felt pain at the individual and community level. We must focus on alleviating that pain, not just quoting limited statistics.  [1]

In 2005 Michelle DePass was a Program Officer at the Ford Foundation with a portfolio focused on the environment and community development, where she became one of the founding donors to the Gulf Coast Fund. The Fund was overseen by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Founding donors included the Agua, Beldon, Dome, John Merck and Rockefeller Brothers Funds; the Ford, Jenifer Altman, Johnson Family, Mitchell Kapor, Nathan Cummings and Park Foundations; and The New York Community Trust.The Fund’s Advisory Group was comprised of a cross-section of Gulf Coast community leaders who advised on Fund strategies, policies and identified needs on an ongoing basis.

Michelle DePass is the Director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center, Dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, and Tishman Professor of Environmental Policy and Management.

Jennifer Santos Ramirez is a Ph.D. student in Public and Urban Policy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy and a Research Assistant at the Tishman Environment and Design Center.