How Can States Cope With Natural Disasters?

3 mins read

By Valentine Fantino

A series of natural disasters occurred in September across the Atlantic ocean, wreaking havoc in several regions, especially the Antilles. This succession of disasters caused even more damage and crisis given that they happened within a short time-frame. Hurricane Irma, for example, caused massive chaos with its record wind speed, classifying it as a Category 5 hurricane. Hurricane Harvey, Maria and the other recent tropical storms have also been unprecedented in character. The US, Cuba, France, the Netherlands and Spain have all had to deal with these emergencies. So what can be done by states after natural disasters occur? What different strategies can they apply to try to face hurricane crises in the most efficient way?

After a natural disaster, states face massive material damage, which in turn leads to widespread social crisis. For instance, the total cost of damage caused by Hurricane Irma is estimated to be 100 billion dollars. Rebuilding infrastructure and communication services are difficult but critical challenges in the aftermath of disasters. People lose access to vital amenities such as water, electricity and shelter, jeopardize their survival. Such conditions can lead to social unrest, including robberies and acts of aggression. Social crisis also comes in the form of people rushing to leave the affected areas, and collective mourning of the deceased. During Irma, more than 50 people were killed.

In order to best cope with the destruction that natural disasters cause, states can intervene to protect citizens following three steps. Firstly, disaster mitigation must be effective. Every country has a meteorological surveillance centre to monitor risky areas. Alarms can be launched when abnormal activity is detected. States must ensure that constructions take climate conditions into account and provide architecture that is made to withstand meteorological disasters. Such costly investments are necessary to mitigate massive destruction and repeated spending on reconstruction. Secondly, when a hurricane’s trajectory is approximately mapped, evacuation plans must be in place. Large numbers of people need quick relocation — for example 6.4 million people had to be evacuated from from the Florida Keys. Security measures and instructions have to go through public media to ensure that everybody has been informed before the disaster.  Thirdly, after the destructive phenomenon, a state’s responsibility is to help its citizens and limit the damage as much as possible.  Emergency status can be declared, a legal procedure which unlocks special funds and tools to quickly deal with the current situation. External military forces can be sent to the damaged area to serve as backup for the units already stationed there. Civil servants can also be asked to stay and aid reconstruction, a measure the French government implemented on Saint-Martin after Hurricane Irma. Leaders and politicians can also visit affected areas, in an effort to calm the people — a move made by both Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump following Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

Every year, more natural disasters occur due to climate change, and therefore states must be prepared for this increase. Living conditions worsen after each disaster, and the rise in meteorological catastrophes could cost many lives. Financially speaking, the cost of these disasters could become unbearable for states and their inhabitants. Rebuilding is both expensive and takes time, two factors that are problematic in a situation which requires fast action. A quick return to normal life is a priority when trying to restore social order and political support for the government. But quick solutions do not always work out. After the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, a lot of temporary housing was built, which is now closed due to health risks.  Such ill-thought-out solutions cause civil unrest, which could be seen in Italy where citizens denounced the housing online and in the media. In effect, such solutions lead to the government losing the support it hoped to gain by acting quickly. It is clear that when a government acts without a plan, this can worsen rather than better the situation.

In conclusion, the consequences of natural disasters for states will inevitably pose a political challenge, but the scope of these consequences depend on states’ preparedness. Rapidity and cooperation are necessary as  lives are at stake, and bad crisis management can harm both the people affected and the political system. The anticipation of natural disasters can be improved by giving proper focus to the consequences of climate change. Ultimately, if states do not give due attention to the causes and effects of natural disasters and how to best mitigate them, we will be faced with dire repercussions. In 2050, it is estimated that there will be 200 million climate migrants. If states are to have any chance at handling such humanitarian crises, states must concentrate their efforts on combating climate change and the consequences that follow.


Valentine Fantino is an exchange student in Uppsala university this year, normally she studies political science in Paris. She is French,  Italian and Spanish, and feels like a European citizen. She is fond of history and art that helps her to better understand the current world. 


Image: Flickr CC

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