Natural Disaster and Political Transformation

This piece was published in the Riverside Press Enterprise for Southern California:

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Natural disasters have a way of not only transforming physical spaces but political landscapes as well. Twenty years ago this month, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck Mexico City, killing nearly 10,000 people and leaving thousands homeless. In three minutes, $4 billion worth of damage was done. The parallels to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are striking.

Many Mexicans accused the federal government of not responding quickly enough to the earthquake. City officials said they were not to blame and pointed fingers at national politicians for years of neglect. When politicians did come to the destroyed neighborhoods, they brought along the media, hoping to score points on the front pages for the next elections. But the residents of Mexico City would not stand for this posturing. They began to organize their own neighborhood organizations from within the rubble in order to deliver food, medicine and shelter to survivors.

These organizations formed themselves into political forces that marched on government offices, demanding that officials pay attention to their needs and not try to cover up the extent of the disaster. When politicians made empty promises, these groups redoubled their efforts. Slowly but surely, residents realized they had power to influence the recovery of their city, and they did not have to wait for the politicians. One neighborhood leader proudly remarked, ‘We said that there had been a natural earthquake; now there would be a political one.’ The networks of citizens pressed for a government that would be responsive to the needs of the people.

They became the nucleus of a movement that spawned a genuine opposition to the single party dictatorship that had ruled for more than 50 years and would eventually lead to the first truly democratic presidential elections in modern Mexico in 2000. It is possible that Katrina could propel similar deep changes in the political life of the United States. Already, many commentators are arguing that the horrendous amount of damage done to New Orleans reveals the failure of the political philosophy that believes big government is bad and the private sector can better deliver the services that people need. It is clear that in the past 30 years there has been a significant deterioration of public infrastructure because politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, have been unwilling to fund it. Instead, they call for downsizing and outsourcing to contractors. The result is clear This year, the American Society of Civil Engineers surveyed roads, bridges, drinking water systems and public schools and gave them all failing grades. Before Katrina, the Louisiana Army Corp of Engineers proposed up to $18 billion worth of improvements to levees and flood-control structures.

None of these projects was funded; in fact, the Bush administration proposed significant cuts in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ annual budget for 2006. Now may be the time to consider that idea that homeland security requires massive investment in improving the quality of public services. Perhaps, instead of spending $1 billion a day on the war in Iraq, we ought to spend it in shoring up our schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, fire and police departments so that if catastrophe strikes, hundreds will not suffer and perish because of poor logistics, lack of food and water, and unresponsive politicians. We might learn from the example of Mexico, where citizens responded to disaster by demanding and shaping a government that would commit itself to improving the lives of ordinary people.


Jos-Antonio Orosco is a professor of political and Latin American philosophy at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore.

He received his Ph.D. from UC Riverside in 2002.

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