In A Hurricane, This Gringo Forgot America's Neighborhood Is The Americas

Sep 20, 2017

COMMENTARY

I’ll confess I said something rather stupid during Hurricane Irma.

As the monster storm drove westward, a colleague checked his tracker app and said it would clip Cuba. Without thinking I blurted, “That’s good news.” Not because I wanted a hurricane to hit Cuba. I just reasoned if Irma’s less dangerous left side grazed Cuba’s mountains, it might drop heavy rain on the island but it might also disrupt the hurricane.

As in: weaken it before it hit Florida. As in: before it hit my house.

But my remark was cold-hearted – all the more so because Irma didn't just clip Cuba. It ended up ravaging the island’s north coast, leaving 10 people dead. I still haven't pulled my entire foot out of my mouth.

READ MORE: Hurricane Bonding: Did Irma Finally Make Us Care About the Caribbean?

It was also hypocritical. As a Latin America veteran, I spend a lot of ink and airtime lecturing gringos to be more sensitive when natural disasters strike the region. I’ve railed at the sort of U.S. editors who seem to use perverse algorithms to calculate how many Hondurans killed in a mudslide equal one American.

Some of them are no doubt crunching those callous numbers this week as not one but two hemispheric catastrophes vie with the latest presidential tweet for media attention:

First, another major hurricane, Maria, slamming Puerto Rico and the Caribbean – right after Irma ravaged the basin two weeks ago and killed as many as 50 people.

With natural disasters raging across Latin America, I confess I was a hypocrite – no better than the U.S. editors who use perverse algorithms to calculate how many Hondurans killed in a mudslide equal one American.

Second, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake that tore up Mexico City on Tuesday – 32 years to the day after the city's epic 1985 quake and two weeks after another big one hit southern Mexico. The combined death toll of those temblors exceeds 300. Among them: 20 children in a collapsed school.

I lived in Mexico City for 10 years; I have friends there who right now are in hospitals or lost their homes. One lost his wife. I’ve lived in the Caribbean and South America. I know how vulnerable that part of the world is.

Hurricanes treat the Caribbean islands like bowling pins. The Pacific “ring of fire” renders much of Latin America a tectonic house of horrors. Volcanoes and precarious mountainsides can bury a village while campesinos sleep.

Latin America and the Caribbean, in fact, are home to half of the world’s 20 most disaster-prone countries. The World Bank estimates those calamities cost the region $2 billion year. The U.N. says Irma cost the Caribbean $10 billion. Those are heavy numbers considering the Apple corporation’s revenues are larger than many of those countries’ GDPs.

So I should have known better than to casually assess how a hurricane “clipping” a Caribbean island might soften the blow on South Florida. (Worse, I was right: Irma did spin out of Cuba a weaker storm.) I shouldn’t have fallen into the yanqui mindset of partitioning North America and Latin America that way.

EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF?

Because the Americas – especially where Florida lies – is a bona fide neighborhood. And neighborhood empathy applies. When a hurricane approaches South Florida, I don’t put up my shutters wondering how my neighbor’s house might buffer the pounding my roof takes.

Rescuers search for survivors at a Mexico City school were 20 children died in Tuesday's earthquake.
Credit Carlos Cisneros / AP via Miami Herald

That notion weighs heavily this week, not just because of Maria and Mexico but because of the speech President Trump gave Tuesday at the U.N. – where he laid out an every-man-for-himself vision of international relations that turns the U.S. into a gated subdivision. And one that foolishly fails to appreciate that if we don't engage our neighbors’ travails, we can expect more of their undocumented migrants at our door. The ones Trump Nation is so obsessed with keeping out.

Which is why this isn’t just about disaster relief. It’s also about disaster prevention – working with islands in the Caribbean, cities in Mexico and hamlets in Colombia to upgrade shoddy building codes. Or considering more seriously how our carbon emissions exacerbate global warming and the more intense hurricanes it's spawning.

And it’s about realizing that we’re committing many of the same disaster-prone mistakes Latin America makes – like reckless development on our coasts, fault lines and flood plains.

In fact, if covering U.S. disasters in this century has taught me anything, it’s that we’ve made parts of North America as vulnerable as Latin America. And that’s not good news.