Editorial: The unsavoury economics of disaster

Right now, on the other side of the continent, New York and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard are picking themselves up and dusting themselves off in the wake of the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. Water and power are being reconnected, the parking garages and subways are being drained of floodwater, and the process of rebuilding an estimated $50-billion in damaged property has begun. The bodies of more than 90 dead are being returned to their families for burial. It’s a time for togetherness, respect, sensitivity and reflection.

But despite these sombre circumstances, some politicians and corporate interests have no qualms about manipulating the situation for their own gain.

Opportunistic captains of industry are using Hurricane Sandy to their advantage. President’s Choice has been thoroughly berated for its ill-conceived Tweet: “What’s scarier? Hurricane #Sandy or a beverage with marshmallow eyeballs?” The Tweet linked to a recipe for beverages featuring marshmallows cut in half and festooned with berries so that they looked like eyeballs — President’s Choice eyeballs. And it’s not just the captains — the lowly foot soldiers of industry are also trying to get in on the profit. Dozens of small-scale businesses are hawking merchandise featuring uninspired slogans like “I survived Hurricane Sandy” (not to mention some other, flagrantly sexist variations on that theme).

UVic isn’t innocent of this type of disaster capitalism. When a minor 3.0-magnitude earthquake struck the island on Aug. 29, the UVic Bookstore was ready for action. Exactly 37 minutes after the quake occurred, the bookstore posted a photo of its earthquake preparedness kits on Facebook. Seriously — check the post’s timestamp online.

All we need now is some screen-print-happy capitalist to buy a bunch of white t-shirts and get his “I heart Sandy” game on. It seems like it’s only a matter of time and heart-shaped stencil availability.

The concurrent timing of this year’s U.S. election also cast light on the political relevance of the disaster. Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s comments on cutting funding to and potentially privatizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the 2011 Republican debate on CNN came back to haunt him. He dodged questions from reporters at recent press events before finally releasing a mealy-mouthed statement endorsing the way FEMA already works.

Obama wisely took a bi-partisan approach and supported local governors over large federal intervention. His efforts won the respect of prominent Republican and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who broke from the party line and described Obama as “incredibly supportive” and “outstanding.” Perhaps Obama’s response helped him win; but what’s important is that he helped, not how that assistance aided his own campaign.

Let’s not forget that Sandy didn’t just strike a superpower in the throes of an election race. The hurricane killed more than 50 people in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Haiti is still reeling from the deaths of more than 200 000 citizens in 2010, when a now-infamous earthquake struck. Yes, there is a great deal of repair work to be done in America. But in Haiti, washed-out roads, evacuated tent cities, the ever-present threat of cholera and a lack of food make the recovery an even greater uphill battle. And while corporations are capitalizing on Westerners’ response to the trauma, Haiti’s prime minister is calling for international aid.

We should be spending on Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, not Hurricane Sandy swag.

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