In a strikingly eerie fashion, major Pacific natural disasters have demarcated either end of the past decade. Certainly, the recent tragedy of typhoon Haiyan has dominated headlines, but parallels can easily be drawn to the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. As unconfirmed death totals rise to the range of 10,000 individuals, it’s natural to wonder “How did this happen?” and” What can we do to prevent this?”

Surprisingly, it’s not a matter of cyclone awareness, or even preparation: the Philippines experience roughly 20 of these tropical storms a year, and programs are in place to prevent injury and loss of life. With such infrastructure and local knowledge, it’s natural to wonder why widespread devastation continues to occur. However,  it is likely the real culprit is one not unique to tropical climates: poverty.

Apart from their South Pacific locale, the Philippines and Indonesia (the country hardest-hit by the 2004 tsunami, with around 168,000 fatalities) share one major characteristic, a low GDP per capita. Coming in at 122nd and 116th worldwide (among the likes of Guatemala and the Congo), many of the locals affected by these storms are subject to abject poverty. Locals are forced to build homes and storm shelters from shoddy materials prone to destruction by larger storms, and resources are usually not available for replacement or improvement. Furthermore, the poorer areas have a difficult time receiving aid post-cyclone, resulting in deaths from lack of food and medical care. Oftentimes, residents stay in their homes during storms  despite the increased risk of injury just to prevent the looting of what few possessions they do own.

Another Pacific tsunami may be the most telling, however. In 2011, a large earthquake caused a tsunami off the coast of Japan, sending waves up to 133ft high through the country’s northeast coast. The Japanese government was quick to respond, evacuating half a million people and preventing a major nuclear incident at the Fukushima reactor. Though many were killed in the initial event, the response was quick, thorough, and effective. Japan shares many qualities with the Philippines to the south – island makeup, extensive coastline, almost identical population density – but their emergency response could not have been more different.

Japan’s GDP per capita: situated comfortably within the top 25 worldwide.

Do you think poverty is a major component of disaster impact? How do you think any such impacts can be mitigated in future natural disasters?

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