From the Philippines to Haiti, disaster recovery is a way of life

The video shows a Salesian priest, Father Salvador Pablo, and others trying to help thousands of dislocated families build new futures. Video: NYTimes, Image (on main page): Erik de Castro / Reuters

For many millions of people living in the planet’s poorest, most populous places, a state of recovery from what used to be called “natural” disasters has become the norm, not some exceptional circumstance. The central Philippines, now reeling from the impact of Typhoon Haiyan, a super storm if ever there was one, are just the latest place in which huge human losses follow a disaster that, in a rich country, would almost assuredly mainly exact a financial toll. See Keith Bradsher’s wrenching reports here and here for details on the damage. And the immediate search and rescue efforts are just a warmup for years of relocation, recovery and rebuilding.

For another example, consider the continuing struggles of hundreds of thousands of Haitians nearly four years after the devastating Port au Prince earthquake. (A great start is “Years After Haiti Quake, Safe Housing Is a Dream for Many.”) They are half a world away, but in the same world in many ways. My 2011 piece on “The Varied Costs of Catastrophe” explains what’s up.

In other parts of the Philippines, town-size resettlement and training centers have been established to deal with a rotating population of evacuees and resettled slum dwellers. I visited one near Manila, a town called Calauan, in 2012 (see video above).

The video shows a Salesian priest, Father Salvador Pablo, and others trying to help thousands of dislocated families build new futures. His team offers a mix of job training programs — in fields ranging from shoemaker to bodyguard. Father Pablo is a remarkable character, a true machine gun preacher, who has run a security service and bodyguard training program for 30 years and has become a proficient marksmen in the process.

Sadly, this is bound to be a growth industry for decades to come.

I wrote about “The Varied Costs of Catastrophe” after Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, comparing the human and financial losses to those from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

In the first days of 2005, after writing a long team-reported account about the march of waves after the great earthquake off Sumatra, I wrote an essay, “The Future of Calamity,” laying out the mix of factors leading to outsize losses when flood waters rise or tectonic plates heave. Here’s the core thought:

“Many more such disasters – from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, to floods, mudslides and droughts – are likely to devastate countries already hard hit by poverty and political turmoil.

The world has already seen a sharp increase in such “natural” disasters – from about 100 per year in the early 1960’s to as many as 500 per year by the early 2000’s, said Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University.

But it is not that earthquakes and tsunamis and other such calamities have become stronger or more frequent. What has changed is where people live and how they live there, say many experts who study the physics of such events or the human responses to their aftermath.

As new technology allows, or as poverty demands, rich and poor alike have pushed into soggy floodplains or drought-ridden deserts, built on impossibly steep slopes, and created vast, fragile cities along fault lines that tremble with alarming frequency.

In that sense, catastrophes are as much the result of human choices as they are of geology or hydrology.”

The future is now.

Andrew C Revkin examines efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits in Dot Earth of the Opinion Section of The New York Times. This post originally appeared here.

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