Hurricane Sandy makes landfall

On the heels of Hurricane Sandy, a disaster that history will ultimately consider to be one of the largest storms to hit the United States and will most likely be one to have an incredible financial impact to be felt for years, it is important to know what the media won’t tell you.
When Katrina came ashore in 2005, it came at a time when the media was experiencing a shift in how the news was reported. Katrina came ashore at a time when the internet was taking hold, camera phones were in the hands of the majority of the middle class, and the “citizen reporter” was a term that many people were just becoming familiar with. When Katrina came ashore, the majority of America didn’t grasp the true nature of Mother Nature. The United States has seen its share of disasters from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 to 9/11 in 2001. No one though, would ever grasp what the nation witnessed day after day starting on the night of August 28th. Approximately 2,000 people dead and 81 billion dollars of damage. As a nation, we watched as the poor die one by one, because of the lack of response. In the aftermath of Katrina there was plenty of blame to go around from FEMA to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. What we witnessed for the first time ever, was our own biases on poverty. “Why didn’t they leave?” “How stupid do you have to be to stay when a Category 5 Hurricane is on its way?” This is my personal favorite…”Why did they buy their homes in the 9th Ward anyway?”
This however is not a post about poverty, but the beginning of a conversation of what it is we didn’t see. We all saw the poor standing on the roofs of their homes. We saw people drowning and no one will ever forget the scenes from inside the Superdome. The aftermath of Katrina began a new conversation about poverty. What happened and how do we keep it from ever happening again? So what was it we didn’t see? What didn’t they show us? What is it that is never shown by the media whenever a natural disaster occurs anywhere in the world?
The answer?
Women are the forgotten, vulnerable population in every country in the world. As succinctly as I can, here is why.
  • Women usually have less influence with the government during the planning, mitigation, and preparedness stage
  • Women in most countries, especially poor communities and 3rd world countries have less access to transportation, control over land, and control over money
  • Most jobs of rebuilding the community goes to men for the natural reason of sheer strength needed. Most governments don’t consider what a woman’s role can be and that many women can do things such as dig ditches, build houses, and use chain saws. Oftentimes, the money allocated for jobs are jobs for men pushing women further into poverty. If the woman is the head of the household or her husband dies, she often times ends up homeless.
  • Women are usually seen as the caregiver of the home. They take care of the children, the elderly, and the disabled. This is overlooked often times as a female head of household tries to recover. Many women go hungry as they feed those they take care of on the limited amount of income and food they are able to acquire.
  • When the media does show women, they are seen as weak and vulnerable, being aided by a man. There have been a number of studies on women and the media during a disaster and what they show is a society that perpetuates the “weak woman” in a time when women are at their strongest.
  • Many disaster kits are created as “gender neutral.” This means that women do not get the necessary feminine supplies needed to last several months following a disaster.
  • Rape and Domestic Violence…Rape and domestic violence has been shown time and time again to go up immediately following a disaster. Rape in 3rd world countries is such a concern that there are organizations from the international community that teach women how to stay safe by moving in pairs, basic self-defense, and reporting
So what do we do? What is happening in the Northeast right now that isn’t being reported?  When the storm subsides and the water is washed back to the ocean, what will we see and where do we go? First of all, don’t look at the media at face value. They will show you Wall Street, Times Square, the Boardwalk in Atlantic City and nice homes washed away. They will show you cars overturned and power lines down. They won’t show you how women kept their families from dying when their spouse went to cut down trees. They won’t show you how women post disaster gave up their jobs when the child care centers never opened again, so the spouse could go back to work. They won’t show you how women rebuilt the social networks of the community. They won’t show the women who fought off attackers who used the disaster as a means for violence. They won’t show you the women that kept their children alive, while they went hungry.
Here is what needs to be done all over the world;
  • Make opening and rebuilding child care centers a priority, so all adults can rebuild the community together
  • The disaster teams need to have special training in gender specific issues, which currently very few do
  • We need to see that women CAN do the MEN’S work such as hauling water and digging ditches and use the natural disasters as a way to show that women are an indispensable figure in all aspects of society
  • Women are natural community organizers. Use the women to engage the community in the mitigation stage as teachers of the importance of preparation. Give women the power to create community block parties where all neighbors are aware of each other’s vulnerabilities. Use these block parties to prepare the community. Where one person can babysit 5 children, another can gather water and another can clean debris.
  • Make sure the disaster kits that are pre-made before the disaster are gender specific and can supply the family for at least 3 months
Most importantly, we must bring a gender perspective to mitigation and recovery. We need to engage the women before and after the disaster. We need to include ALL members of the household in preparation and recovery and not just the men.
In response to increased levels of gender-based violence in Nicaragua following Hurricane Mitch, the government organized an information campaign using all types of media. The message was simple, “Violence against women is one disaster that men can prevent.” This campaign changed violence against women in Nicaragua forever…not just during the disaster. The campaign was so successful, that disasters are being used around the world as an opportunity to change how men see women. It is an opportunity for growth. Women can rebuild and women have a voice!
There is one important thing all people can do now to change our response to disasters and we can do it right now. Let’s stop the violence against women by calling an end to the misogynistic society we live in. When women on a sunny day are seen as helpless, needy, emotional, and in many places a 2nd class citizen, then how do you think they will be treated after a deadly disaster like Sandy?