By Andy Channelle, IFRC
At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy tore a path through the Caribbean before landing on the eastern seaboard of the United States. The storm caused hundreds of deaths and destroyed homes, farms and livelihoods in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Recovery is likely to cost billions of dollars.
Hurricane Sandy also provided perhaps the perfect example of how a catastrophe can achieve blanket news coverage across the world, and yet become a silent disaster. As news teams descended on New York and New Jersey, celebrity-packed concerts were organized, and editorials were drafted on the triumphs and tragedies of the US response. Meanwhile, the five countries in the Caribbean affected by the storm were largely overlooked.
A research project commissioned by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO) examined the media response to Hurricane Sandy’s effects in the USA and compared it to media coverage of the storm’s impact in the Caribbean, and also to the other examples of ‘silent disasters’ covered over the last four weeks.
The results were startling.
After analysing 700,000 news articles and over 7 million tweets across 200 countries and territories, it was found that stories relating to Sandy in the USA accounted for almost 90 per cent of ‘silent disasters’ media coverage. Next in the hierarchy of global media concern was the passage of the storm through the Caribbean, which attracted 6.76 per cent of the coverage, and then the other 11 disasters which accounted for 3.83 per cent.
This is not just academic. The media profile of a disaster is also likely to have a significant effect on the level of support available through institutional and individual donors. While the fundraising efforts for the response to the disaster in New York sailed past 40 million US dollars within a few days, modest Red Cross appeals to cover shelter, hygiene, cholera prevention and other vital operations for over 230,000 people in the Caribbean have yet to reach 50 per cent of their targets.
The IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) exists to channel support based on immediate need, rather than the vagaries of the news cycle. It is an essential funding tool, supported by ECHO and many other valuable donors, used to offer immediate support to local Red Cross and Red Crescents around the world following small or medium-scale disasters, often silent disasters.
Xavier Castellanos, director of the Americas for the IFRC, said that regardless of the scale of disaster, the Red Cross Red Crescent is concerned about making a difference: "Large disasters, and the response to them, can be spectacular, extraordinary and unexpected, magnifying people’s sympathy and solidarity,” he said. “But while there are sometimes competing agendas in the international media, the priorities of the Red Cross remain on humanitarian needs after a disaster of any size, responding with the help of volunteers, community leaders, and partnerships with authorities. Even after the disaster and the cameras are long gone, the Red Cross will remain to support those most in need."
Dr. Bildard Baguma, Under Secretary General of Programmes and Projects with the Uganda Red Cross Society, speaking at the launch of the Silent Disasters campaign in Brussels said the challenge even went beyond response. The best response, he said, was being prepared: “It is much better down the line, for all of us to focus our efforts on addressing the risks and vulnerabilities that people face before emergencies happen.” This, in tandem with the development of programmes that help those affected by recurring disasters, will help break the cycle of vulnerability.”
The multiple epidemic outbreaks - cholera, Ebola and Marburg - in Uganda in 2012 was the first silent disaster featured on 18 February in a month-long campaign in partnership with IFRC, ECHO and 11 European Red Cross societies to raise awareness on silent disasters around the world.
In the Caribbean, in all the communities and countries the Silent Disasters campaign has covered over the past four weeks, and all other countries around the world, the Red Cross and Red Crescent with the support of ECHO and other partners, will continue to work long before and after any news crews have departed, attempting to raise the volume on crises that, for the people affected, are anything but silent.