In The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer, John C. Mutter provides an academic account of this present day fact. Like many of the storms Mutter recounts, this book begins slowly, carrying only a hint of its powerful and distressing conclusions. Careful chapters catalog the general categories of "natural" catastrophe, their effects, but most importantly the nearly universal character of their aftermaths.
The Columbia professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences and International and Public Affairs defines the sequence of the phenomena he discusses:
Mutter's book is not all doom and gloom. Though worldwide media saturation means that we are more aware of terrible events halfway round the world than we might have been until recently, in fact he concludes that lower rates of extreme poverty have lowered the annual death toll from "natural" disasters from 120,000 in 1970 to 20,000 today. Not that we really know; he goes to some lengths to explain how poorly the toll of most events is counted. And most events don't even show up in national GDP calculations because the kind of wealth destroyed in disasters -- especially property rights in land -- aren't part of that economic abstraction.
But mostly -- whether in Haiti or China after earthquakes, in Sri Lanka and Japan after tsunamis, or in Myanmar or New Orleans after cyclones -- a dreary pattern can be documented.
Mutter's conclusion extrapolates his model to climate change:
If the poor, Black residents of New Orleans, especially those who were never able to make it back to the city, had known about Mutter's theoretical construct, might they have been more able to fight back against displacement? They certainly already had known for generations that elites considered them throwaway people. But wider understanding of how "natural" disasters always are seized upon by the wealthy to enhance their existing advantages might at least have helped them pick their fights in the traumatized aftermath.
This is not a fun read, nor is it particularly cogently written. I picked up a few historical tidbits I may pursue one day, for example that the 1906 San Francisco quake was followed by vigilante murders of poor residents, just as happened in post-Katrina New Orleans. But I'm glad to have a stronger familiarity with the ugly pattern. After all, I live in earthquake and tsunami country; this typology could be all too personally relevant.