Disaster syndrome

The word “disaster” that is in everybody’s lips nowadays has its roots in the Greek word “astron,” meaning star.  A disaster literally is an event that is “ill-starred” – a way of saying that its occurrence is beyond human control.  By this definition, all disasters would be natural.  Yet, it is now usual to differentiate “man-made” from “natural” disasters, suggesting a readiness to think that many disasters could be traced to decisions or policies made in the past by communities, governments, or organizations.  If so, then they can be prevented by changing the decisions that led to them, and by opposing similar ones that are yet to be made.

This way of understanding the problem has given rise to the concept of “risk.”  When decisions are taken in awareness of their probable harmful consequences, people want to be told precisely what the risks are, how they are to be minimized, and whether the benefits outweigh the risks.  But, not even the most sophisticated rational calculation of risk can ever completely allay public anxiety.  Thus, risk calculation rarely becomes the basis for any enduring consensus.

The decision to mothball the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, which was ready to “fire” in December 1985, is a case in point. Having gone that far, and having poured billions of dollars into the project, the government could have easily marshaled all the arguments based on rational risk calculation to put to rest the objections to the nuclear plant.  But, all such claims were no match against the widespread suspicion that, because of corruption, shortcuts had been made that compromised the safety of the plant and its capacity to withstand an emergency.

Moreover, the new government had little interest in operating the plant, as it was bent on projecting the BNPP as a concrete symbol of everything that was wrong and corrupt about the Marcos regime.

There is a downside to this fixation with technologically-induced disasters.  It draws attention away, says Niklas Luhmann, from all other “forms of being which – as Nature – intrinsically limit what can happen.”  When people decide to build their houses on dried-up river beds, atop mud dikes, or along river banks – or sequester portions of lakes and rivers for use as fish-pens – they too are engaged in risky behavior.  If fast-rising floodwaters sweep these homes away, killing thousands in the process, as they did in Ormoc many years ago, one would not be able to tell how much of the disaster is natural and how much is manmade.

There is always a need to lay the blame for every disaster at the door of somebody, since Nature’s ways are far too complex to figure out.  If it is not the weather agency that gets it for not being able to predict the precise path and strength of a typhoon, it is the people in charge of the dams for releasing water into the rivers at the wrong time that do.

The script has become tediously familiar: stranded in their homes, residents bewail the absence of relief goods, even as they ignore warnings and refuse to move to temporary evacuation centers.  They heap scorn on their local officials for abandoning them.  They beg the President to visit them in person to show how much he cares for them.

Perhaps there is something about disasters that transforms us into helpless little children craving for attention.  Paired with the ritual of generous relief-giving that comes in the wake of every disaster, this helplessness turns into what we might call a disaster syndrome.

This ritual is usually enacted with a lot of fanfare, almost as if the whole purpose was to earn bragging rights rather than to help. It is almost impossible to coordinate relief efforts.  Nearly every group that offers relief insists on giving it directly to the victims, making sure that the beneficiaries know exactly where it came from.  The semantics of dependence permeates these transactions.  It is as if disasters were invented to serve as the occasion for affirming social inequalities.

Compare this with the way the Japanese people bore their suffering in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and killer tsunami that hit their country in March this year.  They lost everything, yet they kept their dignity intact.  In the midst of their personal misfortunes, they found time to comfort one another.  But the consolation they offered each other was never intrusive.  Hardly a word was typically exchanged; it was the hearts that communicated.  One is no longer surprised why the Japanese seem to emerge stronger after every misfortune.

Their defenses are basically spiritual rather than material.  They draw from internal strength rather than from external aid.  But, more importantly, every disaster becomes a mnemonic code for every Japanese child, evoking detailed communal memories of vulnerability and response.

In an international symposium on disaster mitigation held at UP in  February 2010, a Japanese participant wondered if the same attitude was systematically inculcated in the minds of Filipino children. The answer, of course, was no.  Whether the disaster is political or natural, we tend to seek relief in collective amnesia, rather than in remembering.  As a result we learn little from the lessons that disasters bring.  Typhoon “Pedring” came almost to the day of the second anniversary of Storm “Ondoy,” yet we greeted its ferocity with the same naïve bewilderment.

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