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Dr. John Mutter, Columbia University - Natural Disasters and the Poor


Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. John Mutter of Columbia University's Earth Institute reveals that in the wake of a natural disaster, the poor often face a unique set of challenges to survival and recovery.

John Mutter is on the faculty of The Earth Institute and professor of international and public affairs, at Columbia University. His research focuses on mid-ocean ridge and rift tectonics, as well as natural disasters and sustainable development. He founded the Katrina Deceased Victims List and the Bamboo Bike Project.

About Dr. Mutter

Dr. Mutter's Blog

Dr. John Mutter - Natural Disasters and the Poor

Natural disasters divide us.

230,000 people were crushed to death in Haiti in 2010. That's how you die in an earthquake; a building comes down on you and flattens the life out of you. Sometimes you die in the aftermath, from lack of medical attention, or contaminated water.

Survivors are flattened as well. In Haiti, where people's prospects for a reasonable standard of living are slim in good times, an earthquake can rob them of what chance they might have had. In New Orleans, too, the poor who didn't drown in Hurricane Katrina were washed out of town anyway--refugees in their own country, left to fend for themselves, with no home or job to return to.

Natural disasters harm the poor more than the wealthy. The wealthy have the savings, borrowing power, and mobility to get out of trouble. The poor do not. In this way, a natural disaster is little different from a currency collapse, or a financial meltdown, and not so very different from armed conflict.

Because we think so differently about natural disasters versus human-made ones, we do two things wrongly. We concentrate on rebuilding structures, not economies. True, physical destruction must be repaired. But the thousands of foreclosed, empty homes in our country today might as well be destroyed; why are we not working to help the dispossessed? Second: we use the wrong metrics to measure recovery. Gross domestic product, used to measure industrial output in rich countries, is far too blunt an instrument to take the pulse of the poor. We need to focus on factors like homelessness, school attendance and emergency room visits.

Our thinking about disasters needs to be merged with economic development strategies if the divide they cause is to be mended. In the end there is really no difference.

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