How disasters put leaders on trial

From hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua to bygone blizzards in Chicago, storms bring on citizen demands.

Nicaragua had barely called for relief in the wake of hurricane Mitch when a political storm broke. Former President Daniel Ortega was among Nicaraguans chargIng the government of President Arnaldo Alemn with corruption, favoritism, and ineptness in the emergency.

That doesn't mean Mr. Ortega will benefit politically. A more likely winner is Joaqun Cuadra Lacayo, leader of the Army, which has been widely praised for its rescue and relief efforts.

Like many natural disasters, hurricane Mitch is creating political whirlwinds that could alter Central America's political landscape.

"The political impact of these kinds of disasters is sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but it is generating growing interest," says Enrico Quarantelli, professor at the University of Delaware's Disaster Center.

Even lesser events, such as a Chicago blizzard in 1979, can pile up political results. Jane Byrne unseated Mayor Michael Bilandic in part because of the city's slowness in getting the streets plowed.

Experts like Dr. Quarantelli observe that natural disasters can strengthen governments that "rise to the occasion."

Political support declines for unresponsive or ineffective governments - especially when massive international aid efforts stop and leave poor local governments with the crucial longer-term recovery.

Interest grows in the political ramifications of disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes as more regions around the world feel the effects of democratization, with more governments being evaluated and "graded" ( in elections and a freer press) by the full spectrum of their societies.

Much attention has been give to the possible pro-democracy effects of how governments deal with disaster.

But most experts say the disaster-democracy connection has been exaggerated. What disasters can do, they add, is accelerate a political change that was already bound to occur.

The 1972 earthquake that leveled Managua, Nicaragua's capital, is held up as a prime example of a disaster with political impact.

"The corruption, the governing weaknesses of [dictator Anastasio] Somoza were already there, but the earthquake put it all in the light of day," says Roberto Fonseca, political analyst and director of Confidencial magazine in Managua. "It had a strategic impact on the subsequent fall of the regime."

Just how direct was the link between the earthquake and Somoza's fall remains a controversial topic.

"What is certain is that disasters weaken central powers to varying degrees - and can accelerate their fall if the weaknesses are important enough," says Elizabeth Mansilla, an urban economist specializing in disaster impact at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City.

The Mexico City earthquake of 1985 is another heavily studied - but controversial - disaster.

The earthquake has achieved a reputation as a catalyst of Mexico's democratization process for the role it played in fomenting citizen demands and creation of nongovernment action groups.

But experts like Quarantelli say the earthquake's political impact is "overstated."

The earthquake was a "detonator" that unleashed a new generation of civic organizations in response to what was perceived as practically a government "void," says Mexico's Mansilla. "But I'm reluctant to give it the long-term significance others have."

Earlier this year the Chinese government implemented a broad propaganda campaign designed to battle fatalism over devastating floods.

The aim was to use the floods as a means of boosting national unity and collectivist action while deflecting criticism from the government's economic performance.

The campaign was modeled after a similar effort in 1976 after a massive earthquake in China's northern city of Tangshan killed 242,000 people. That disaster gave the government an opportunity to battle what it considered the backward thinking of traditional peasants who still related major events like natural disasters to an emperor of divine origin.

A government radio and poster campaign declaring "Man can overcome disaster!" was credited with uniting people after the fractious tendencies of the cultural revolution - but actually doing little to dent old superstitions.

Governments have demonstrated in other occasions that they can turn disaster into progress.

In 1985 survivors of a deadly mudslide in Colombia deplored the government's emergency aid program called resurgir or "rising up again." They sardonically renamed it resufrir, or "re-suffering."

"But the government did prove it was capable of learning, because out of that experience it created Colombia's version of FEMA [US Federal Emergency Management Agency]," says John Schorr, a disaster sociologist at Stetson University in De Land, Fla.

When a strong earthquake destroyed the remote Colombian Indian town of Paez in 1993, initial government response was faster - and the long-term recovery project specifically aimed to rebuild the community's economic base while reducing the potential risks of future temblors.

New housing was built of earthquake-resistant materials and avalanche zones were set aside as green space.

The Paez experience is especially encouraging, says Mansilla, because it suggests something new - government taking steps to reduce people's vulnerability to disaster.

More typical is the example of Mexico City. Even as the city government reports intensifying microclimatic changes that are producing more and fiercer downpours, a new study shows that more than 30,000 mostly poor people are living in the city area's unstable and flood-prone canyons.

"These are disasters in waiting that unfortunately won't be changed by Mitch," says Mansilla.

But will Mitch produce any political change in Central America?

"I'd say yes," says Mr. Schorr, the disaster sociologist, "although it's too early to say exactly what."

The most visible change is likely to come in Nicaragua, observers say, which remains the region's most politically polarized country.

"I foresee the [Alemn] governing party losing a lot of ground in municipal elections in 2000," says Mr. Fonseca, the Managua political analyst.

"There's a broad sentiment that the government could have avoided a lot of the suffering with better planning both before and after the hurricane."

He adds: "The Army is the one institution that has weathered Mitch looking capable and effective."

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