Santa Fe New Mexican
Preserving human dignity amid disaster
The fires and droughts in New Mexico are all too familiar. The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management encourages residents to regard emergency preparedness as a way of life. By planning, preparing and practicing, they urge, our families will be more comfortable if disaster strikes.
While important advice, I think it ought to be extended to systematic process of disaster relief, beyond the size of a family. Proactive planning over reactive resolving can ensure a more culturally appropriate response to crises.
We refer to events like fires as “natural disasters,” but the “disaster” component is anything but natural. A natural hazard only becomes a disaster when it interacts with a human landscape and destroys our infrastructure and managed lands. The natural circumstance is deemed disastrous when it impacts people.
Ironically, in responding to these disasters, we ignore our uniquely human characteristics like culture. Case after case is seen in which emergency responses to disaster are actually quite dehumanizing. Why do our solutions to a human problem cause a loss of human dignity?
New Mexico’s rich cultural landscape clearly demonstrates the value of cultural traditions. But in the context of disasters, these traditions are not valued as they ought to be. We can see this in the case of Hurricane Katrina. Standing in the Need by Katherine Browne dives into the prolonged struggle of an African-American family after losing everything in the storm. Outsiders’ attempts at restoring their community ignored their cultural identity, stripping them of their entitled dignity.
The family’s cultural traditions, including large gatherings and shared meals, were virtually impossible to maintain in the shelters provided by FEMA. Trailers provided no space for family gatherings. Responders offered no way for people to maintain their patterns for meeting social needs like child care. Disaster responses ignored the cultural elements that were embedded in lives; without the comforts of familiar life, their own resilience got severely hindered. We have lost touch with how much cultural traditions like family gatherings can contribute to a community’s ability to relieve the stress of disasters and increase coping capacity.
Katrina was a disaster because it impacted humans. Yet disaster responses ignored the uniquely human characteristic of culture.
But there are some signs of hope. For example, people around the globe look toward innovation as a means of finding culturally relevant recovery techniques. Architect Shigeru Ban (awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2014) designed uses for materials like cardboard tubes to make temporary structures for disaster relief. The structures proved so successful that their “temporary” status often turns permanent. (Watch his TED talk by searching “emergency shelters made from paper.”)
By considering the range of human needs after a crisis, structures can be developed beyond one-size-fits-all models. If designed according to their region of placement and cultural traditions, they can better aid in recovery. Ingenuity plays an important role in improving upon our current system of disaster response.
It’s imperative to keep the human element of disaster in mind for recovery efforts. The argument is often made that in the midst of emergency, people seek only immediate needs of food and shelter, regardless of their cultural relevance. While this is true, there are steps we can take to ensure that even the most kneejerk responses to a disaster are thoughtful in ways that allow for later resilience.
A natural hazard becomes a disaster when humans are in its path. Human dignity, then, must be preserved in the disaster relief, through the consideration of culture’s role in a community’s strength and resilience amid and after crisis.