Disaster Relief in the Caribbean Basin: Getting on the Right Side of Washington is No Easy Matter

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Hurricane season has made itself known to the Caribbean Basin as multiple tropical storms and two category-five hurricanes have ravaged Central America. This is the first time two storms of this magnitude have hit in the same area in a single month since record keeping for the region began over one hundred years ago. Studies suggest that this trend, represented by an increase in the number and ferocity of the storms, is related to global warming. There have been 31 category-five hurricanes on record, eight of which occurred in the last four years, possibly indicating that the gradual rise in atmospheric temperature has resulted in increased storm intensity and frequency. With these ominous indicators now confronting the hemisphere, the inevitable question arises: what is the U.S. government, as the hemisphere's leading economic powerhouse, doing to increase its ability to deal with such disasters and is it contributing all that it can to help neighboring nations in their moment of need?

The Storms Strike
Hurricane Dean tormented the Caribbean, producing dangerously high waves off of Jamaica before striking at Mexico's Caribbean coastline. Just after this, Hurricane Felix devastated Nicaragua, leaving scores dead and many more injured and homeless. According to the National Hurricane Center, the actual number of tropical storms and hurricanes for August was low, but the Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index (ACE), which measures the duration and strength of named storms and hurricanes, was above average. In addition, USA Today reports that the worrisome conditions associated with La Niña, known to bring along a more raucous hurricane season, may be developing. Officially, the hurricane season lasts from June 1 to November 30, and now, more than halfway through the season, climatologists are promising much more activity to come.

Not only can the hurricanes be counted on to inflict vast devastation, but months, if not years afterwards, residents may have to endure the consequences of extreme rain and flooding that often cause landslides and other geological problems. Flooding from Hurricane Felix in Nicaragua damaged approximately 12,000 latrines, which in turn contaminated 9,000 wells; massive evacuations were required, and many victims were still missing or feared dead days after the hurricane struck.

Hurricane Dean Sets a Standard
Hurricane Dean reached category-five status on August 21 and fiercely smashed into Caribbean and Mexican coasts killing a reported 27 people. Jamaica estimates that its school system alone has suffered around $700 million in damages and that its health facilities sustained $168.4 million in losses, while Mexico estimates that 52,000 homes were destroyed.

The U.S. Red Cross donated $250,000 to Mexico via the Mexican Red Cross, along with the services of six U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) disaster specialists who have been working in the country. Australia has pledged $550,000 to countries affected by Dean. USAID reports a total contribution of $1.31 million dollars, which was distributed to all of the countries affected by the storm. This includes relief commodities valued at $297,000 and emergency health service support amounting to $275,000 to Jamaica, and also an assessment team and a disaster specialist. In a straight dollar amount comparison, the U.S. contribution appears to trump Australia's; however, if the contributions are framed in terms of each country's GDP, the picture is quite different. The U.S. GDP is 20 times that of Australia, yet the U.S. gave only about 2.6 times the amount that Australia contributed. What's more, Australia is almost 12,000 miles from the Caribbean where the U.S. is a direct neighbor.

Then Came Felix…and Henriette
On September 4, Hurricane Felix assaulted the Nicaragua-Honduras border area. Soon after, residents sighted bodies floating in the water, according to Nicaraguan Civil Defense Department spokesman Álvaro Rivas, who also believes that the local death toll will climb daily as more bodies wash ashore. Estimates of Felix's death toll range from 103 to 130, but it is likely that the true number will only be known much later as one of the main regions hit was home to the Miskito Indians, an island-dwelling community off the coast of Nicaragua, which was completely caught off-guard by the tempest and where a great deal of damage was done.

Emblematic of the traditional miscommunication and frustration existing between the Miskitos and the central government, many Miskitos themselves have been searching for and burying the bodies of victims, without bothering to report this information to government authorities. It is unknown how many victims Felix trapped while they were out to sea.

While Honduras endured mainly flooding, Nicaragua was particularly hard hit and given little warning or adequate time for preparation— the hurricane warning was posted and alarms sounded less than 24 hours prior to Felix's landfall. The resulting comparative lack of readiness, along with the inability to access remote jungle areas where some of the populace originally sought refuge, made the delivery of medical and food aid difficult. Aristides Mejia, Defense Minister of Honduras, sent military helicopters and boats to distressed areas to help in the rescue operation. Although both the UN Country Team and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) are working with a disaster assessment and coordination team in Honduras, far more assistance is still needed for the effort.

The Closest of Strangers
Venezuela announced that it had sent a "planeload" of disaster-relief supplies to its ally Nicaragua, which reportedly included 8 tons of goods along with a team of risk-assessment experts. In addition, Cuba already had 57 doctors and nurses stationed on the Miskito coast on previously assigned medical missions before the storms commenced. Japan contributed almost $1 million worth of goods to Nicaragua alone. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is maintaining a presence in Nicaragua, with the USS Wasp and teams of response experts on call to assess and plan the coordination of relief in the country. Also, a USAID disaster-response team remains in-country working with the DOD to coordinate relief efforts. This is in addition to the $1.5 million the Department contributed to all affected countries. If we apply the same above mentioned equation to the relative relief commitment and the magnitude of contributions of Japan and the U.S., the results are again quite disproportionate. The U.S.'s GDP is 3.5 times that of Japan while the U.S. gave only 1.5 times what Japan gave.

The European Union as a whole has pledged $1.3 million to Nicaragua, with EU and U.S. GDPs being virtually the same. But since individual EU members make separate donations themselves, such as Spain, (which reportedly sent a 17-ton aid package along with $184,600 worth of aircraft fuel to the region), the results further highlight the disproportion of U.S. relief aid donations in comparison to its purchasing power. All told, the total amount of aid falls far short of the $30 million that the Nicaraguan government conservatively projects will be needed for the reconstruction of damaged portions of the country. The United Nations has appealed for $40 million of aid to go to Nicaragua, encouraging donors to be extra generous.

On September 5, Hurricane Henriette hit Mexico; however, as only a category-1 storm, it inflicted less damage than Felix or Dean. It made landfall on the Pacific coastline of Mexico, leaving nine dead and many displaced, with flooding the main concern in its afflicted areas. Thus far, the three hurricanes to hit the region this year have battered a total of ten nations in the Caribbean and Central America.

Coordination of U.S. Aid
The method of disbursing aid from the U.S. is more than a little confusing. Officially, the Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance in the State Department serves concurrently as the Administrator of USAID. Thus, ostensibly, the authority over all planning and implementation of official governmental disaster relief aid is in the hands of one individual. This director (currently Henrietta Fore) is responsible for the budget proposal. For fiscal year 2008, the request for International Disaster and Famine Assistance is $297.3 million. The budget for 2006 was $361.35 million, so why is the budgetary request for less than what was actually utilized in 2006 if disasters will, in the most optimistic view, continue to occur at the same rate and severity? In contrast, for the 2007 Fiscal Year, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget reports that the President's budget "provides $439.3 billion for the Department of Defense's base budget—a 7-percent increase over 2006 and a 48-percent increase over 2001—to maintain a high level of military readiness, develop and procure new weapon systems to ensure U.S. battlefield superiority."

USAID reports that its total contribution to Latin America and the Caribbean for the three hurricanes the region has thus far experienced in 2007 has been $2.3 million. In addition to this figure, the DOD's $1.5 million contribution to those countries affected by Hurricane Felix brings the total formal contributions from U.S. governmental institutions to $3.8 million. Also, the Red Cross, a "federally chartered instrumentality of the U.S.," provides international disaster relief via a network called the "International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement" in which ad hoc partnerships are established with local public and private bodies, as was the case in Mexico where aid was funneled through the Mexican Red Cross.

Aside from these official resources for international disaster relief, the U.S. government provides aid through various non-governmental organizations when it funnels money into entities such at the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and many other private entities. In a COHA interview, a CRS representative reported that the organization is funded through both private and government sources and that pre-determined allocations of resources are made to impacted regions in instances of disaster. The CRS had emergency supplies pre-positioned in Honduras in anticipation of Felix and, thus far, has contributed $100,000 in aid.

Our Own Issues
Washington possesses all of these outlets for aid, yet critics say it spends little on international disaster relief in comparison to, for instance, the defense budget. When humanitarian crises such as the above occur in Latin America, relief agencies and humanitarian efforts will inevitably look to the U.S. for leadership. As the undisputed hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. has a unique responsibility, due to its possession of vast resources and skilled personnel, to help what it sees as under-equipped countries in their time of need. But when it comes to rapid governmental response, the U.S. does not have the best of track records. Two years ago, the Bush Administration was anything but swift and efficient in professionally handling the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the city of New Orleans. To this day, Katrina veterans are wading through red tape amid broken promises in their agonizingly slow journey back to normalcy.

The aftermath of the ineffectual initial emergency response to Katrina witnessed a jumbled game of "hot potato," with blame being tossed around by confounded federal agencies and local governments, while precious minutes ticked by and U.S. citizens were suffering grievously in the afflicted city. These types of failings bring up important questions about federal budget allocations and issues of professional and organizational shortcomings. There often appears to be a serious lack of commitment, strategy, and ability to efficiently help when disaster strikes and it comes time to engage in assistance efforts. In the past few years the U.S. has become almost notorious for being unable to properly disburse sufficient amounts of aid within its own borders, let alone in other parts of the world.

Long-Term Assistance?
Recently, in one installment of the ongoing implicit competition between the Bush Administration and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela for positive influence in Latin America, the U.S. sent the USNS Comfort—a large medical vessel fully staffed with health practitioners—for a four-month tour of the Caribbean and Latin America. The Comfort departed Norfolk on June 15 and is due back in October. The ship not only provides medical care to citizens of the region, but also carries medical supplies to be donated to these countries. A noble mission indeed, but it is receiving some criticism regarding its long-term impact. Some criticize the project by noting that the Comfort's mission will be a one-time, four-month occurrence. The ship is currently not scheduled to return to the region, thus reinforcing a pessimistic view concerning any follow up. On top of this criticism is the belief that the ship should perhaps have been relocated to the region for a longer stretch of time to serve the ongoing needs of the countries directly affected by the series of hurricanes, but it has no plans to alter its schedule and sail on to Nicaragua to provide badly needed aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Felix.

The Quest for Regional Domination
The current power struggle between the U.S. and Venezuela is obvious, as is the fact that Venezuela is currently the frontrunner in the contest, at least when it comes to the comparative volume of aid deliveries and their overall positive impact on the region (given the relative differences in the capacities of the two countries' economies). An Associated Press article reports that "in terms of direct government funding, the scale of Venezuela's commitments is unprecedented for a Latin American country."

If the Bush Administration really wishes to improve relations with Latin America and staunch its waning political influence in the region, while countering the growing popularity of the Hugo Chávez government, it would seem a productive step for it to go out of its way to maximize its help when a disaster strikes, as well as show sustained overall interest in the region at times of relative tranquility.

Latin America is an area of growing strategic importance and it can no longer be ignored or shunted aside as a secondary factor. The U.S. has so much potential to influence the region positively, but unfortunately, its current administration seems to have little intention of even entering into the fight for the hearts and minds of Latin Americans.