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Natural and not-so-natural disasters

September 17, 2004 | Page 3

IT'S A perfect photo op for his reelection campaign--George Bush visiting brother Jeb's state of Florida, surrounded by devastation. Bush has already spent plenty of time posing for pictures in front of the damage caused by two hurricanes that hit the state in a matter of weeks. And Hurricane Ivan, a Category 5 hurricane that will be even more powerful, was on its way as Socialist Worker went to press.

Bush is looking to gain some election-season mileage off of other people's misery with his Florida visits. Cuba, on the other hand, isn't so popular with the Republicans. So there won't be any presidential visits to pass out relief supplies for the cameras--either there or any of the other Caribbean countries where Ivan struck over the past week, causing immense damage and dozens of deaths.

As usual, the media reported breathlessly about Ivan and the other hurricanes as "forces of nature" that show how much about the world is out of human control. But there's more to the story.

For one thing, numerous scientists argue that the strength and frequency of this year's hurricanes are the result of unexpectedly warm water in the Atlantic Ocean. Sea surface temperatures are now 9 degrees higher than recent averages and are directly responsible for spawning the hurricanes, Eric Blake of Miami's National Hurricane Center told the Guardian.

Many atmosphere and climatic factors are at work--for example, something known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which involves variations in air pressure and sea temperatures--but global warming caused by pollution is likely involved. "Every year since 1995, except for two El Niño years, has been an above-normal hurricane year," Mike Davis, author of Ecology of Fear, told Socialist Worker.

"Sea temperatures in the tropical Atlantic are higher than normal, thus supplying more energy to hurricanes. This can't be directly attributed to global warming, but an intensification of the NAO is exactly what you might expect. Every North Hemisphere summer now seems to guarantee climate disaster of one kind or another."

According to climate scientists and relief agencies like the Red Cross, climate-related disasters are on the increase, at least partly due to global warming. In 2003, approximately 700 natural catastrophes killed more than 50,000 people worldwide.

Beyond the issue of global warming, every "natural" disaster--from fires to floods to hurricanes--exposes how the poorest and most vulnerable suffer under a system based on profit instead of human need. In Florida, the poorest areas suffered the worst damage. "Poor areas tend to do poorly," Richard Ogburn, principal planner for the South Florida Regional Planning Council, told the New York Times. "Their structures tend to be the least robust."

This is even truer of the poor countries, like Jamaica and Cuba, which have suffered the brunt of Hurricane Ivan so far. And in addition to the dozens of deaths directly related to the storm, two Jamaicans died when they were shot down by police--during a state of emergency called by the prime minister--because they were suspected of looting.

"With a billion people now living in slums and shantytowns, the human toll of disasters will steadily increase," Davis says. "The mudslide/flood disaster in Venezuela [in 2000] which killed 30,000 people--mostly in the barrios--is the shape of things to come." That's a sick statement about the capitalist system we live in--and another reason why we need to commit ourselves to the struggle for another world.

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