Destruction from Petit-Trou-de-Nippes, one of the many Haitian villages destroyed by Hurricane Flora in 1963.
National Museum of the U.S. Navy
q&a / power

The Unlearned Lesson of Hurricane Maria

A hurricane historian talks about the still-unfolding disaster in Puerto Rico.
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AB: How have different governments responded to hurricanes over the years, and which responses seem to work best in helping the largest number of people?

SS: Most of the islands—the ones occupied by the British, the French, the Dutch, the Danes—were given over to individual noblemen or to companies that were developing the islands. They were privatized (or feudalized). So when natural disasters happened in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the government didn’t have much to do with it. They said it’s your problem.

It was really only by the middle of the 18th century when places like Jamaica and Barbados became very productive and valuable with their sugar plantation economies that the government began to see it was to its interest to make sure of the continued health and productivity of those islands. That’s when the government began to respond directly to natural disasters. In the 1770s and 1780s we see large amounts of money given by Parliament to the islands in response to hurricanes.

The one exception to this were the Spanish. The occupation of places like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic were from the beginning government sponsored and government controlled. So the Spanish quite early on responded to a natural disaster usually not by giving them money for repairs but by forgiving taxes for a period of years.

By the end of the 18th century, all the imperial governments had decided that government response to natural disaster was to their advantage. But then the question was to whom do you give the money? Do you help the planters or the people who’ve lost their home? How do you ensure people won’t take advantage of it? That dominates how people think about relief from the 19th through the middle of the 20th century.
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