illustration by Alexxander Dovelin
This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Chaos. Subscribe today!
I’m clicking through photos of Louisiana’s Black residents displaced by August’s floods, their cheekbones and smile lines weighed down by a heavy hopelessness, when the building I’m in starts to tremble.
I’m in the center of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, a country in South America that was rocked by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake this April and about 2,500 aftershocks since. The quakes robbed us of hundreds of people, mostly Black, Indigenous, and Afro-Indigenous, in the northwestern provinces of Manabí and Esmeraldas. After living through nine of these, my mind tells me to chill and let it pass, but that feeling fades when the ground and walls around me violently trill. My instincts tell me to make peace with everything I’ve known. I sit up on the floor and gather blankets around me, bodies flashing in my memory’s eye: the friends of friends, the family of friends, the friends of family who were lost in Manabí and Esmeraldas, but also in Haiti and New Orleans. Once I imagine joining them, the world hums to a lull, and all is still. I’ll be okay.
At a time when “natural” disasters brought about by climate change are overtaking news cycles, it’s imperative to unpack the very specific sociopolitical causes of these events and examine who bears the brunt of the chaos that follows them. As the Gulf Coast continues to rapidly recede into the earth’s heating oceans a decade after New Orleans drowned and earthquakes and hurricanes in the Global South bring devastation to the world’s most vulnerable peoples, we must contend with the fact that not only are these disasters unnatural, but they have a color, class, and gender. So how do poor women of color get screwed over most after these “natural”disasters, and how does the way Western media spins such tragedies affect how we understand them?
Unpacking what media and politicians claim are natural disasters is a matter of sifting science from society. Invoking the term “natural” makes sense in that the occurrences in question—tornadoes, tsunamis, sinkholes, and so forth—take place in nature, but the term “natural” conveniently casts powers beyond human control as scapegoats, giving a pass to human accountability. “Disaster” isn’t always the right term either; if a volcano erupts in an area void of human population, it may be harmless to society and thus is a “hazard,” not a “disaster.” A natural disaster can then be understood as the effect of a natural hazard on humanity—a combination of who is exposed to the hazard, their level of vulnerability to it, and their capacity to cope with it. When systemic inequality further limits the self-determination of vulnerable communities and those in power manage the profitable business of preparing for, surviving, and rebuilding after such events, the result is what I’ll refer to as ecosocial disaster. As the disaster-relief organization Rescue Global clarifies, “a disaster cannot be ‘natural’ as human-manufactured leadership, politics and resources, govern its existence.” Or, in geographer Neil Smith’s words, “there is no such thing as a natural disaster.”
Even as we reckon with the now-irreversible effects of global warming, we can still take measures to prepare, weather, and rebuild. The reasons we don’t have less to do with the funds available than how those funds are allocated—and have everything to do with race, place, and class. Take Cuba, a “developing” country championed by the United Nations and Oxfam for their socialized disaster preparedness. When Hurricane Ivan hit the Caribbean in 2004, people died in Florida, Grenada, and Jamaica, but no one died in Cuba. Before Ivan struck, communities organized cleanups of potentially dangerous debris, and gas and electricity were cut to prevent fires. The central government worked with those communities to organize transportation for evacuations, and, while Ivan raged, 2,000 prearranged state-sponsored teams provided water, food, and medical treatment. Alternatively, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, evacuation was left to the private sector, and after days of waiting for provisions in the Superdome, thousands of New Orleanians were finally given “aid” boxes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency only to discover that they were full of medicine to fight anthrax instead of useful emergency supplies. These disasters have a place, race, and class, but it’s not as simple as “poor” countries have poor preparedness. Ecosocial disasters tend to wash away the bullshit and reveal that the so-called first and third worlds are not binary places.
Before the earthquake hit Ecuador on April 16, I visited Esmeraldas, and I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between the sociopolitics of the region and those of places like Haiti, New Orleans, and even Thailand. There is a specific plight that Black and brown communities in coastal regions experience, communities that traditionally relied on subsistence fishery but became dependent on oil booms after ecosocial devastation. It’s a plight of abandonment, displacement, and privatization by way of tourism and gentrification. Since being settled by escaped slaves who swam to safety after their Spanish captors wrecked the ship taking them to Peru in 1533, the Esmeraldas province has been most associated with Afro-Ecuadorian people and culture. Its population is over 70 percent Black, the largest concentration of Afro-descendants in the nation. This province also has some of the country’s weakest infrastructure; has few (real talk: no) politicians with citizen’s best interests in mind; and struggles against social, racial, and economic anti-Blackness that all intersect at the environment. Business boomed in the ’80s after Ecuador became the world’s first exporter of shrimp, but it was at the expense of over 70 percent of the northwestern coast’s mangroves, which serve as barriers between sea and land. In present-day Esmeraldas, the capital of the province, power outages are frequent and potable water isn’t guaranteed, but the gleaming lights of the massive Petroecuador oil refinery, siphoning crude oil by way of a pipeline forced through the Amazon are visible from wherever you are in town. Workers who used to be fishers now risk health and safety working at the notably hazardous site for long hours and little pay.
[ During ]
It was 6:58 p.m. on Saturday, April 16, in the Manabí province, and as the sun finally declined behind high green hills, a slight Atlantic breeze flirted with the folks in the otherwise humid, buzzing streets. Friends and families were leaving dinner and popping open Pilseners, our country’s beer of choice. Then they heard a hard hum, a chorus of seismic waves as tectonic plates grinded against each other underground, causing the earth to roll and the walls of edifices to shake until they shattered. The 7.8 magnitude quake was felt throughout neighboring Peru and Colombia, but its epicenter was near the city of Pedernales, Manabí. It took at least 673 lives and injured almost 30,000 more people. The rebuilding effort is lagging. I was walking in my hood in Queens, New York, when Facebook asked me to mark myself safe, thinking I was still living in Quito. My heart skipped all the beats, then broke wide open.
The buildings in these small cities were of modest height, so many victims weren’t killed on impact, but slowly suffocated under rubble as rescuers attempted to pull them out by hand. As aftershocks continued to hit the region, many roads were blocked by rubble, mudslides, and police deeming them unsafe to pass. Large machinery that could have done the heavy lifting was prevented from helping in the effort right away, and caravans of smaller vehicles carrying supplies were frequently robbed. The National Secretariat of Risk Management set up some shelters, but the news outlet El País reported that 83 percent of the settlements that sprung up were diy efforts. A month later, national daily newspaper El Comercio reported that about 6,500 people were still staying in official shelters, while about 22,500 were in unofficial ones. The latter reported a lack of potable water and functional latrines. Febrile, skin, and intestinal infections spread at epidemic levels. Most camps had no roofs to shield inhabitants from the elements and rain poured on them, soaking donated provisions and bringing mosquitoes that spread bloodborne diseases. Unqualified volunteers from the exterior, tourists as well as well-intentioned locals, teemed into the disaster zone despite being advised against it by every authority, draining what little resources were available to survivors. With little to no experience in disaster relief, they were easily overwhelmed by the scenes before them, the piles of limbs, and, by every report, the smell.
During the chaos, my group chats and newsfeeds began to fill with reports of sexual assault in the affected zones, particularly in unofficial camps. With little privacy, authority, or light at nightfall, sexual and gender-based violence spiked across the region, a common consequence of ecosocial disasters. A Red Cross study found that the rate of sgbv in Mississippi rose from 4.6 incidents per 100,000 people per day pre-Katrina to 16.3 per 100,000 per day a year later. International media wasted no time in reporting on the viral cases of rape in transitional camps after the quake in Haiti, though little was done to ameliorate it.
With the United Nations Population Fund finding that 52 percent of women in Manabí and Esmeraldas had experienced sgbv before the quake, Afro-Ecuadorian feminist organizer Carol Francis Bone of the local collective Mujeres de Asfalto describes the situation as a microcosm of an underlying misogyny that became glaringly obvious through the cracks in the earth. “I think the shelters revealed the reality of the disorder that we live with and don’t want to talk about,” she says. When sgbv prevention goes unacknowledged in disaster relief efforts, she continues, “women are the worse for it.”
Of the nine nations the Red Cross studied post-disaster, none included arrangements for preventing and responding to SBGV in their relief plans. Once police finally apprehended an attacker for attempting to assault an adolescent girl in a Manabí camp, Ecuadorian media heralded it as a matter of authoritarian effectiveness amidst chaos, rather than an incident that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The National Network of Attention to Gendered Violence in Ecuador responded by handing out pamphlets that warned of transactional or “survival sex” work, where sexual acts are exchanged for aid. In a survey conducted in five transitional post-quake camps in Haiti, the UN found every single participant had witnessed or engaged in transactional sex, most of whom had not done sex work before the quake. Given all these patterns, lack of action in preventing and responding to sgbv in ecosocial disasters is not a matter of mere oversight, but a consequence of climate-induced hazards exacerbating institutional patriarchal oppression.
Since relief efforts are run by governmental, private and faith-driven charitable institutions, all historical enemies of the trans community, their specific needs are virtually never taken into account, and because of this, several trans organizations in Ecuador banded together to organize relief for themselves after the quake. The problem with the apolitical nature of disaster relief efforts is that in glossing over inequality, institutions get to allocate resources based on existing hierarchies with little transparency or discourse while the marginalized are left to fend for themselves. They have free reign to discriminate while being seen as saviors.
In the wake of ecosocial disasters, marginalized communities suffer cultural losses, and in this case, they were specific to misogynoir and transphobia. Eli Vásquez, a lawyer and activist with the Ecuadorian trans rights organization Proyecto Transgénero, calls Manabí province the “fortress of trans identity,” pointing to a legacy of particularly extroverted, entrepreneurial, and proud generations of trans folks. We can imagine, then, how much harder they were hit than the majority cis population, from the increased violence the sex workers among them faced to the conditions in which they lived and worked in the aftermath. One woman in Pedernales, Vásquez told me, was cutting hair by the light of a single candle amid the ruins of her own home.
Then there are the Afro-Esmeraldeña women who carry worlds on their backs. Many of them are heads of households, small business owners, and artists sustaining the traditions of Afro-Esmeraldeño culture endangered by the rising popularity of globalized American exports. Women such as the few seamstresses left who remember how to weave traditional dress, who teach increasingly uninterested youth traditional dance, who sing old songs from the Chocó bioregion, and who educate through oral tradition the true history of their culture, which the rest of the country’s school systems intentionally fail to address. In the face of systematic white supremacy and its functions in Ecuador (which only started counting Afro-descendents in their census in 2002), such as the blatant environmental racism of commercial overfishing and labor abuse in oil refineries I mentioned earlier, the work of these women is vital. When the earthquake hit, and they were busy scrambling for the survival of their dependents and facing increased sexual and gender-based violence, the greater Esmeraldeño community suffered. The earthquake, too, revealed how much we depend on Black women and how much there is to lose when we fail to value and support them.
[ After ]
After the earthquake hit Ecuador, my mind traveled straight to New Orleans, a city I had visited two years after Katrina. New Orleanians renamed Katrina “Hurricane Bush,” since George W.’s administration implemented policies that made the Gulf Coast vulnerable to floods. As Neil Smith predicted in 2006, “after the Bush hurricane, the poor, African American, and working-class people who evacuated will not be welcomed back to New Orleans, which will in all likelihood be rebuilt as a tourist magnet with a Disneyfied BigEasyVille oozing even more manufactured authenticity than the surviving French Quarter nearby.” And he was right, of course. When I was there, I saw hipster boutiques and glass-and-silver complexes pop up directly across from the remains of homes. After the Ecuador quake, I estimated it would be a matter of months before privileged foreigners would pounce on coastal land ravaged by the quake to make way for beach houses and all-inclusive resorts. It came sooner than I thought.
Three months after the initial Ecuadorian earthquake, the beach city of Manta, a popular getaway for wealthy Ecuadorians that took a direct hit, had been almost entirely rebuilt. In fact, it took only weeks to rebuild the towering hotels and condos of their coastline, while in the town of Eloy Alfaro, a majority Black, majority female, and majority poor pueblo with fewer resources, people were still living off of rations. There, the socioeconomic impact of the disaster outweighs that of the natural one. A New York Times article that exclusively quoted white foreigners in the tourism industry reported that business was booming after the disaster because while “the earthquake was devastating, it happened in a part of the country where not many international tourists go.” Translation: White people have always been afraid of places like Esmeraldas, so the fact that the region was damaged is neither here nor there to the industry.
On the island of Muisne just off of the Esmeraldan coast, where aftershocks are still practically a daily occurrence, about half the population has fled to a hill on the mainland; those who have chosen to stay are resisting a recent government initiative to displace them all. Holding signs that said, “Muisne isn’t for sale” and “I’m staying in Muisne,” El Universo reports that the survivors have been marching and protesting the announcement since July, which states that the island is at such great risk of tsunamis and earthquakes that it’s been rendered uninhabitable and islanders will be evicted to the mainland. However, the government has not offered any evidence to back this up, but instead are investing $80 million to convert the island into a tourist destination. In a short documentary by videographer Pocho Álvarez, locals say that they don’t contest that the island is at risk, but ask that that money go into scientific research to assess the magnitude of risk, as well as toward disaster prevention, evacuation efforts, and rebuilding. As the New York Times notes, tourism is great for economies reeling from the effects of natural hazards—indeed, ecosocial disasters are gold mines for everyone but those directly affected.
It’s been eleven years since Hurricane Katrina and we all know the answer to the question that Messy Mya asks over the opening beats of Beyoncé’s “Formation”: What happened after New ‘Awlins? But what have we learned? Just days after this summer’s floods in Louisiana, the Interior Department held a lease sale of up to 24 million acres in the Gulf for oil and gas development in the Superdome, of all places, while homes were still underwater. Considering the continuing effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, when 30 million gallons of British Petroleum oil were released into the Gulf ecosystem, eating away at mangroves and marshland, we can forecast that the future of climate-induced calamity will only grow darker. But that is the precise function of what author Junot Díaz calls “ruin-reading.”
Ecosocial disasters reveal to us a kind of apocalypse—the seemingly illimitable dark depths human greed has cut into the earth—but also, the future. What can be planted there? What might grow? Floods, hurricanes and earthquakes delineate every definitive form of oppression and their glaring intersections, connecting dots that might have seemed unrelated before. They show us that as the globe warms and oceans rise and the earth splits beneath our feet, those affected will become the majority, and there will be no lands left for the “worthy” amongst us to flee on an ark. These disasters reveal to us that the least powerful, together, can tilt the planet in our favor, if only we read through the ruins.