Tsunami Relief, American Disasters

Personal experiences with floods, mass power outages or severe conditions suggest to me and probably you as well what the priorities should be and what effective emergency relief looks like. The images we see today throw into doubt that Western countries act rapidly enough to this distant disaster in South Asia. Like it or not, the main muscle for relief is provided by the armed forces on the ground. Political oligarchies and armed forces who thrive by taxing the people are not the best instant response teams any of us would like to depend on.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005 Mobilizing Relief Action as Disaster Strikes Once Again By Ross J. Peterson An ocean tide of rhetoric will accomplish nil in the wake of the tsunami that killed more than 150,000 across coasts and islands, across an entire ocean. The destruction on December 26, 2004, was massive, reaching from Aceh/Sumatra to Africa. Money, no matter how great the sum collected or promised, will not change the way capital “A” authorities stall for one week, maybe two, before acting. A cynic should be accorded respect if they say that building the fund for aid only slows down the effective response the way loading two heavy trunks will slow down a traveler. As just one example, though, a North American realist knows that any delay in mobilizing Canada’s heavily equipped Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, which requires the largest military cargo planes to move it, is a waste of human lives for every day it sits idle at home. Sometimes you must travel both heavy and fast! A catastrophe is a natural challenge to the legitimacy of duly constituted authority and rebel action as well. Taking relief action and initiative is regarded as a gesture of sovereignty. We have all been through this jockeying for position before, especially between the US and the UN or, more locally, Canada and Quebec. But historic enmities should, but rarely do, fall aside in a catastrophe. It is imperative to sweep away the barriers to action on the ground. The people who need food and shelter may have thought that it would take a social revolution to get anything. Are we waiting for that? Our Western governments want to sidestep the fact that the Indian and Indonesian central authorities are regarded as occupying powers in some of the territory hit by the tsunami. The media will assist in camouflaging the fears national governments have about losing control. The public should be prepared to be told that delays in mobilizing assistance are simply necessary until the proper conditions for deployment are in place. The question in the back of our minds, however, should always be: “Proper conditions for whom and why now?” Where the authorities are basically an occupying power or a civil war and rebel struggles cast doubt on who retains authority in the minds of those suffering, if aid money is to be effective to save lives, it must go to government, rebel, and nongovernmental volunteers, as well as to delegated groups and agencies whose formal mandate is humanitarian and not political. We should not ignore the fact that much of the muscle needed to assist in the regions hit by the tsunami will have to come from the local armed and police forces. It could end up being another nightmare of another order, but it is not worth the delay of stepping back to slowly contemplate before acting. I lived as a simple citizen through two natural calamities in decidedly Western cities: a flood in Des Moines twelve years ago and the ice storm in Quebec seven years ago. In southern Quebec 1.4 million people were struck by ice that brought down thousands of electric power lines feeding into our workplaces and homes. In Des Moines, the Midwest flood brought water overflowing the local treatment plant, cutting the water supply throughout the city for a month. For my Quebec family, it also took one month before electricity was re-established before moving out of temporary shelter on the former military college in St. Jean, Quebec just south of Montreal on the Richelieu River. Degrees of suffering cannot be compared. With the lives lost in South Asia and along the coasts, the bereaved need much more than material assistance. We are not going to make pretentious comparisons between people suffering nor will we simply pray. There is no list of worst catastrophes I wish to mention. Close to home geographically, you have to look back in time to hurricanes, the Chicago Fire, the Montreal Fire and the Halifax Harbor Explosion. Take your browser on that trip if you must. Under different circumstances, and following what the media reports from Sri Lanka or Tamil Nadu, volunteers mobilized immediately after the tsunami like they did in disasters everywhere. Public spaces housing and feeding the people most affected, those without safe families to turn to, became instant shelters. Individuals also used makeshift means to rescue people from remote locations. One point here is that “logistics” is a word that means something other than “emergency response.” I smell a rat when I hear of long delays to work out logistics in an emergency no matter how high-flown the spokesperson’s rhetoric. In Quebec we melted snow, in Des Moines gathered rainwater to keep the toilets flushed. Many individuals toughed it out in private dwellings without heat, during the ice storm, or without running water, after the flood. But if you didn’t have a way to heat the bathroom pipes in Quebec, your toilet would freeze; cooking with portable gas stoves indoors was inviting asphyxiation. The army brought in the potable water in Des Moines. But, during the flood, confusion arose in trying to keep the clean water separate from water used to bathe and flush wastes. We used permanent markers to label plastic lids on several white buckets that we lined with clean garbage bags of all sizes and colors. Labeling and organization made all the difference between safe digestion and diarrhea. My previous experience with extreme cold and handling water came from winter camping and staying weekends in the mid-winter in an old farm house with a working well, where, within three hours of lighting the wood stove, you got some space heat, unlike the city apartments without fireplaces or stoves. During the ice storm it was neighbors caring for neighbors that saved the many lives and made lost days bearable within that huge patchwork of some electricity lines working and downed transmission towers cutting off most power supply. Here the Canadian Armed Forces did everything from trucking, setting up generators, clearing roads to cutting out the tangle of downed electric cables and running new lines in their place. Of course, none of this compares to the tsunami on Boxing Day in the Indian Ocean, I know. I do think that the need for a military mobilization to coordinate the distribution and repairs within networks of essential services is universal when an emergency stretches over several weeks. It helped of course to have large public institutions with vast gymnasiums and cafeterias available for sleeping bags and sundry personal effects piled helter-skelter around each family nest on the floor-space. (Ironically I was in San Francisco right after the 1989 earthquake at a convention in the Mascone Center. The reason I saw so many people sleeping in doorways, I was told, was because the homeless were kicked out of Mascone to make way for the very event I was attending!) Free hand-outs of toiletries and other near-necessities for survival were distributed much more liberally at a time when stores and homes lay dormant and virtually abandoned during the blackout from the ice storm. Free diapers, socks, toothpaste, but most of all collective meals and food staples were available where emergency shelters were properly organized. Food banks also did their part. Entertainment was an essential for keeping up morale, over more than the month with the kids out of school and mothers and fathers tearing their hair to figure out when and if they would be called to go back to work. Like in Quebec, Des Moines without running water also was obliged to pull together. Here the solidarity was needed to supply a constant going-and-coming of trucks with plastic cisterns to bring the needed water to homes, especially where an elderly resident couldn’t handle the weight of full water buckets or make the trip to the National Guard’s distribution points. Where the roads are out along South Asian coasts and burying the dead can overwhelm the challenge of meeting basic survival needs, they are living a far worse and dangerous nightmare. Even if they get the food and water in and all the bloated bodies buried, the local, daily distribution must be assured, for how long no one can predict yet. It all will require a minimum of confidence in local small “a” authorities who must give orders to a mobile and hopefully civic-minded army. But we know that in Aceh, under the Indonesian military and security forces, the occupying army is hostile to the people. Fundamentally and historically, those forces use terror, not aid, to quell the masses and the leadership of their longstanding movement for independence. Where there is no security in the disaster zone, civilians are forced to migrate inland to seek out distant relatives or take their chances wherever they can. Under any imaginable scenario, all natural disasters put stress on relatives and the volunteers who open their homes to those in need. The soldiers in these dozen countries in the Indian Ocean basin should be, but in many cases are not, dedicated to the service of civilians regardless of partisan or ethnic loyalties. Even where such disinterested service exists, it can evaporate under the stress of day after day of uncounted hours spent carrying out emergency deployments. Exhaustion is one thing in Des Moines or St. Jean, Quebec, but if soldiers in less pacific places consider their weapons the main tool they carry into an emergency civil mobilization (to stop looting, for example), a completely peaceful resolution is neither guaranteed nor likely. Imagine what happens where the military has a tradition of living through corrupt and arbitrary taxation of civilians, as they are accused of in Aceh and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka or in much of East Africa. A possible scenario in Aceh/Sumatra is that the efforts to save life are dependent on the play between local loyalties versus centralist strategies of the military. The entire zone is important to the dominant elites and American oil companies who are exporting Aceh’s petroleum resources. Already Indonesian authorities have delayed medical teams from Japan who were ready to enter Aceh. Instead, Jakarta sent in more troops. For what reason? In the oligarchic lands and nations we may begin to see a mobilization of the army of occupation that is, all told, a certain necessity. In humanitarian terms, however, the only feasible approach for continued, effective assistance would be under command by United Nations troops. Some hybrid constitution of troops could, eventually, substitute for one-hundred percent occupation of devastated zones by Indonesian forces in Aceh. That would be a farsighted approach if it were implemented. It would also start to reverse the practice of systematic repression of Aceh separatists and dissenters. On the other hand, recruitment of an international band of peacetime UN soldiers (they are little more than bands at first) through an appeal to willing nations, would provide an emergency force that is far from rapid in deployment, less than efficient, and often ignorant of local conditions and languages—missing all the elements at the core of saving lives, re-establishing livelihoods, and re-igniting a basic economy for survival without mass migrations. We in the West live in the immediate world of images we see from our vantage as media consumers. We are now shown images of food hand-outs off trucks in the centre of some devastated town. Without a more communal and orderly chain of supply directly to where folks live and want to work in the future—the more we see of slap-dash crowding for hand-outs—the more we must realize that the relief is not getting through to those who need it most. Let us just hope that this is a typical oversight by the media who typically ignore the nitty-gritty, hands-on efforts of people helping each other to pull through.

e-mail:: wdashham@msn.com homepage:: http://www.pressaction.com/news/weblog/full_article/peterson01042005/

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