Cole: Natural disasters worsen existing gender and socioeconomic inequalities

Before making landfall, Hurricane Patricia, a category five storm, had winds of up to 200 mph, making it the strongest hurricane on record in the Western Hemisphere. However, through excellent disaster protocol and a series of fortunate events that diminished the storm’s intensity, there were zero reported casualties.

Western Mexico and Texas were the two places hardest hit, and experienced serious floods and heavy winds, but avoided the mass destruction that seemed inevitable hours before the hurricane’s landfall.

The hurricane serves as a sobering reminder of just how powerful natural disasters can be, and how important it is to be prepared. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge that natural disasters do not impact everyone equally. Natural disasters disproportionately afflict marginalized groups of people within a society, inversely correlating with one’s social mobility.

Neil Smith, an acclaimed anthropologist, goes so far to say, “There is no such thing as a natural disaster… At all phases, up to and including reconstruction, disasters don’t simply flatten landscapes, washing them smooth. Rather they deepen and erode the ruts of social difference they encounter.”

Women, particularly if they are of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, suffer most during natural disasters and their aftermath. In 2008, the first-ever quantified study detailing the imbalanced gender differences in natural disaster-related deaths was published. The study, which looked at more than 4,600 natural disasters spanning from 1981-2002, concluded that natural disasters kill more women than men, particularly when women are of lower socioeconomic status.

This particular study was a step in the right direction for policy makers moving forward, but is only one small rung on a towering ladder.

Systematically altering aid procedures to increase emphasis on issues of gender and socioeconomic standing is easier said than done. Issues of top-down policy making, entrenched structures of power and general bureaucratic slowness all come into play.

However, this should not discourage attempts for widespread adjustments. It merely means that bottom-up, smaller-scale operations must operate concurrently, bridging the gap until, hopefully, overarching policies can be pushed through.

Hurricane Patricia’s relative docility was the summation of a lot going right, and Mexico’s evacuation protocol was reportedly top notch. Still, there will be future hurricanes, and some will intensify at landfall, not weaken. For this, aid protocol must always be improving, particularly through gendered and socioeconomic lenses.

Azor Cole is a senior public relations major and geography minor. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at azcole@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @azor_cole.


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