In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, debate about climate change has come to the forefront of our agenda. While the media pontificates if this was truly the wrath of global warming, there is a more important discussion to be held: the disparate effect that natural disasters have on poorer nations and the role of Western governments to mitigate this. However, what we fail to realise is that the climate crisis has an identical effect on poorer individuals. In the instance of tropical storms, the Philippines will be faced with years of rebuilding to restore normalcy. Similarly, within New York City there are people still attempting to return to their life before Hurricane Sandy.
As an epidemiologist I carried out several surveys following Sandy within a heavily hit region in Queens, NYC focusing on how socioeconomic status impacts recovery. Seventeen days after the storm, I arrived to the Rockaway Peninsula armed with a survey recommended by the Center for Disease Control and the goal of identifying vulnerable populations and their needs. My enthusiasm resonated with optimistic volunteers who had set up supplies and water distribution, former army vets rebuilding homes, and neighbours sharing meals on coal grills in the open air.
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I met people from many different walks of life. However, it soon became clear that although Hurricane Sandy did not discriminate who it affected, there were certain groups that struggled more. As we canvassed, the now unrecognisable million-dollar beach homes gave way to poorer neighbourhoods and I discovered whole new sets of problems. People were struggling for food, and several reported going hungry for days.
Single mothers were begging me to get them mobile heating units, and had in the interim turned on their gas burners and shut their doors and windows to warm their infants, unknowingly risking their lives with carbon monoxide poisoning.
How could we let this happen? How was it acceptable that weeks after Sandy, families were still suffering without basic utilities and food?
According to our findings, over half of respondents stated they no longer felt safe in their neighbourhoods, citing looting as a primary concern. Several men recounted how they stood guard outside of their homes during these early days of darkness, armed with guns to protect their loved ones, spurred by local reports of rape and looting. They were curious to where all the floodlights had gone and in response, I pointed across the bay to lower Manhattan.
How could we let this happen? How was it acceptable that weeks after Sandy, families were still suffering without basic utilities and food? New York City’s respective agencies had placed everyone on the task of restoring livelihoods in Sandy’s aftermath. Every floodlight in the city and surrounding area was mobilised to illuminate major streets. While resources were stretched to the limit, these measures were still insufficient and perhaps not targeted appropriately to maximise their effectiveness.
Similarly on a global scale, as different countries grapple with varying consequences of climate change, whether it be changing vectors of disease, loss of crops in dry spells, or an increasingly devastating hurricane season, each will need to tailor its interventions appropriately.
Four months later I returned to the Rockaways with the same enthusiasm, but was not prepared for what I encountered. After the debris had been cleaned, the volunteer groups disbanded, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shut their offices, it seemed that all immediate needs had been addressed. However, in returning to the Rockaways I found a ghost town. The feeling of despair was palpable, and people that had once welcomed me into their homes for a conversation shut the door in my face. They were sick of canvassers, federal officials, and the now broken promise of rebuilding.
These individuals took out $2.2bn in loans for an estimated $83bn worth of damage for stripping the mould from their basements and replacing their flooded cars. They put hundreds of houses on the market to support other family members shipped to nursing homes who could not endure the cold without heat. While insurance and FEMA provided some financial assistance, it was not enough for many who did not have the savings to sustain themselves.
Whose job is it to tackle these problems, both domestically and globally? With respect to New York City, a new ambitious $20bn hurricane protection proposal to erect levees and bulkheads over vulnerable coastal areas, reinforce the power grid and ensure better evacuation plans will take a decade to implement. On a global scale, the US is digging its heels in the ground refusing to pay a carbon tax and offering menial levels of compensation to countries that are suffering the consequences of pollution of our industrialisation era for decades.
The fact is that this crisis disproportionately affects those from lower socioeconomic status, both on the global and individual level. Developed nations such as ours owe it to the world to curb emissions and financially compensate for our carbon debt, and we owe it to our own countries to tackle these issues at home.
Saleena Subaiya is an epidemiologist who has conducted several post-disaster hurricane needs assessments within Queens, New York City. She is currently working as an emergency medicine resident in New York City. She received her MSc from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.