The damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy has provided a clear lens through which to examine comparative media coverage of disaster.
Before the storm hurled itself across the East Coast, it had traveled through Haiti, where it killed at least 50 people and left thousands more homeless — this in a country still reeling from the devastation of the 2010 earthquake that killed perhaps 300,000 and left around 1.5 million homeless. If you read and watched the U.S. media, you would probably not know that Sandy had ever touched down in Haiti — I looked hard for a story covering the Haitian casualties, and didn’t find one, although there was a lot of chatter on the Internet about Haiti and the storm. Haiti and Sandy’s Haitian victims were lost in the intense coverage of East Coast preparations as the storm advanced (the fantastic photo of the Everest of sandbags protecting Goldman Sachs’ Wall Street offices provided some valuable insight, however). The first U.S. casualty was a man killed by a tree in New Jersey: his sad death received 100 percent more coverage than those 50 or so Haitians.
There’s an old saw among foreign correspondents: One American death equals 20 European deaths equals 100 Asian deaths equals 1,000 African deaths — or some similar ratio. Anyway, this explains the two inches of copy a Kenyan bus plunge will receive, or a Haitian ferry crash, versus a nice two-columner for the murder of a Kentucky family. (And note, too, that the murder of the white Kentucky family in a trailer park gets less attention than the killing of a white Connecticut family in a nice suburban home, which gets a below-the-fold, front-page tripler, with photos, and a full-page jump.) The ratio has to do with proximity, with race, and with economic standing. Of course I have to admit as a former newspaperwoman that it also has to do with the tabloid-worthiness of the deaths; murder always being better than accident, but natural disaster trumping everything unless it happens to those perceived as, in some way, ready for disaster or worthy of it: the world’s bottom billion in other words. People such as Haitians.
Sorry to be so Haiticentric, but I can’t help it, as you know if you’re reading this.
So when I look at the picture of a crowded gas station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, above, I feel that I have been here before; I’ve been in that gas station so many times, only it was always in Haiti, and no one ever cared. In fact, no one really minded: in Haiti, gasoline shortages are habitual, just part of the program of underdevelopment — Haiti can run out of gas nationally because a tanker is delayed. One becomes rather insouciant and even fatalistic about it. It’s perfectly normal to say that you couldn’t get to an appointment because you ran out of gas or because you were delayed at the gas station for hours. Often you borrow someone else’s car that has more gas, if your meeting is really urgent.
And in Haiti, people who are standing in line picking up gas for distant empty cars don’t have those nice handy red gasoline holders to fill up; they have old vegetable oil bottles or dilapidated white buckets. (Did you know some gasoline is pink? I learned that in Haiti.) Also the cars that converged on gas stations in Port-au-Prince or in the provincial towns (in inefficient circles and wedges resembling the pattern at the Brooklyn station above), are not recent models. Suffice it to say that it is not surprising to look down while riding in a Haitian “taxi” and see the roadbed passing beneath your feet as if you were the aptly named Barney Rubble.
Also, by the way, hospitals have always had huge power problems in Haiti, all the time. I loved reading about how Bellevue hospital dealt with Sandy; it was so Haitian — the bucket lines, going up and down stairs on foot, without elevators, rushing oxygen tanks first to one bedside and then the next. Welcome to the world as it is.
So I’m listening to all the voices complaining about the disaster on the East Coast, I’m looking at my wrecked childhood beaches and my beaten-up hometown, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and I’m feeling very sad and sorry for myself, but at least I’ve been there before, so I’m not utterly shocked, although it feels weird in the way it felt weird when a princess died in a car crash: no no this doesn’t happen to such people! We’re insulated.
I’m hoping at any rate that other Americans are beginning to understand that this is how the rest of the world lives. I hope they understand this, because it is a very harsh and big lesson brought literally home by a very cruel storm.
A friend of mine sent me the second photo above, of the beach near Neponsit, in Queens, New York. Her father lives not far from where the picture was taken. Because she’s my friend, she has heard more than her fair share of Haiti stories, tales of particular tribulations of Haitians and those working in Haiti. (It’s not always fun to be my friend.) The message that she sent with the picture was this: “Now I have even more sympathy for your forgotten Haiti…” It made me proud to know her.