Disasters and Disaster Response – Why Earthquakes are Not Always a Big Deal Except to NGOs

People have been asking about the New Guinea earthquake and what they can do to help. I must confess that I am a bit blasé about it. We have responded to the earthquakes in Haiti in 2010 and were in Nepal in 2015 during their earthquake. Earthquakes are scary and often bad. In Haiti the entire infrastructure was destroyed and 100,000-160,000 people (out of 10 million) died. In Nepal 9000 people died (out of 30 million) but the financial cost of rebuilding is estimated at ½ of the entire annual GDP.

PNG is different. Most people live in rural huts not urban high-rises. Huts survive earthquakes rather well and are easier to rebuild. The total death toll is estimated to be 100 out of 8 million and the infrastructure damage is fairly low.

The news media needs to tell a story. Haiti was easy as everything was destroyed. Nepal was harder. There was not actually a lot of obvious damage in Kathmandu and three major news services were stuck using the same picture of a slumping building in their coverage. (The building was only slumping on one side so the photo had to be carefully shot.) As usual all the aid organizations flew in their personnel to get that crucial picture of their (white) worker saving a (dark skinned) child and flew out again. I get it – that is what you need to do to raise money.

The same scenario is being played out in PNG. The New York Times article led with “Papua New Guinea, which is still recovering from a deadly earthquake last week, was hit by a powerful aftershock Wednesday that left an estimated 18 people dead or injured, adding to a mounting toll from the quakes, officials said.” And yes the photograph has a (white) aid worker helping a (dark skinned) family.

But earthquakes happen frequently in the Ring of Fire and this one was a pretty trivial problem for PNG. What should my friends do? We think you should support organizations in PNG who have long term goals – like the PNG Tribal Foundation. New Guinea is beautiful and the people are amazing but it suffers from severe poverty, corruption and an extraordinary amount of interpersonal violence – these are the problems. As our friend Gary, who was born and raised on the island, said “it is not a big deal if your hut leans a bit to the left after the earthquake”.

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