Les Cayes, Haiti, after Hurricane Matthew (Julien Mulliez/DFID)

While you were marking yourself ‘safe’ on Facebook, poor people were losing everything

Hurricane Matthew is a reminder of how climate phenomena disproportionately affect the poor.


SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic

I was on vacation in Boston with my family when Hurricane Matthew hit Hispaniola, where we live. The day our plane was leaving, I told our nanny there was a hurricane on the way to the island. That was news to her. The first thing she said was, “I hope your flight will be OK.” I told her we’d be fine, that the storm wouldn’t hit for a couple of days, privately astounded that her first concern was for us.

Here, I’m rich, and our nanny is lower middle class. (By U.S. standards, I’m lower middle class, and she’s dirt poor.) I live in a sturdy high-rise built for the earthquakes and hurricanes that are common here. Many people outside the city live in wooden homes that flood easily, with tin roofs that blow off in strong winds.

While I could afford to fly away from the storm (the timing of our trip was coincidental) and most Americans can afford to evacuate danger zones, the people here in the Dominican Republic and in Haiti had no choice but to hunker down and ride it out. That’s why perhaps 1,000 people or more died in southwestern Haiti, where Matthew made landfall: Their houses blew away, and they were bashed to death by chunks of wood and metal flying 170 mph.

The ironic thing about Facebook’s “Safety Check” is that anybody using it this weekend was virtually certain to be safe. The 36 reported deaths attributed to Matthew in the U.S. included things like a man who crashed into a tractor trailer stopped because of a downed tree and people running power generators inside their garages. In other words, people with the luxury of cars and generators used them improperly during the hurricane, which is different from being bludgeoned by a flying tree branch or having your home collapse on top of you. I don’t mean to belittle death, but there’s a reason probably more than 1,000 people will die from Hurricane Matthew in a country of 10 million (Haiti) while a only few dozen died in a region of around 57 million (Florida to Virginia).

A writer for the environmental website Grist called the Haitian death toll “environmental racism” on Twitter. She was so fiercely attacked by other users (“Why do hurricanes unfairly target coastlines? Environmental racism. Check your inland privilege.”) and by conservative websites that she deleted her Twitter account. But her point is valid. Low-income groups and minorities are disproportionately affected by effects of climate, both in domestic and international contexts. And this fact forms the entire basis of climate finance and is one of the foundations of the Paris Agreement. It also partly informs the idea of climate justice. Environmental racism doesn’t mean weather is racist; it means we are. And the concept holds with regard to Haiti, a slave colony that won its freedom from racists only to be encumbered, exploited and condescended by racist policy for the next two centuries.

Dominicans even condescend Haitians, holding themselves, in a bizarre Stockholm syndrome effect, as superior because of their partial European heritage. Their cross-border policies (including massacre and mass deportation) have also not been positive for the Haitian GDP. Poor as it is, the Dominican Republic fared the storm much better. Four people died here.

When we returned to Santo Domingo, the capital, the city appeared just as it had when we left it. But the countryside was a different story. Our daughter’s nanny had her home, with all their clothes and furniture, drenched in floodwater. They washed everything and laid it in the sun, but the refrigerator was ruined. They’ll replace it when they can, she said, without any hint of complaint. The door man downstairs showed me video footage he took on his cell phone of the river water that stopped just a few feet short of his house. The houses across the street were sitting in shallow pools. Vendors loaded bananas into a plastic cooler to float them down the street, too flooded for any vehicle.

In developed countries, we have wealth or credit to rebuild. When it comes to climate disasters, the less you have the more you stand to lose.

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