Natural disasters happen all the time and generally, governments get a bad rap for their actions during the aftermath. Right now the Japanese government faces its own criticisms after the earthquake and tsunami. Most of it is due to problems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex and the government’s bureaucratic red tape. Although it may seem like the Japanese government isn’t working as fast it could, it is a miracle worker compared to this list of worst government responses due to natural disasters.
5. North Korean Famine of the 1990s
In the 1990s North Korea faced a famine that killed nearly a million people and severely affected millions more. While famine is a common occurrence throughout history, this particular one killed off 5 percent of the country’s population and could have been stopped by the government.
The problem stemmed from North Korea’s belief in isolation. Even today, the country is ranked as the most isolated country in the world. During the 1980s, North Korea produced much of its food itself, but still depended on food supplies from their only allies the USSR and China. When those food supplies stopped in the 1990s and a series of floods and droughts hit the region in the early 1990s, North Korea was left with millions to feed and little food.
Instead of asking for international help, the government implemented a “Let’s eat only two meals a day” campaign in 1991. The government also issued food ration cards to 64 percent of the population. However, many didn’t receive aid and were left to starve.
It took until 1995 before the North Korea government finally asked for international aid. Even then, governments were hesitant to ship supplies to North Korea because of rampant corruption and the nation’s political ideologies.
It was years before North Korea recovered from the natural disasters, but even now there are reports of people in the country starving. Foreign aid still pours into the country and some have even questioned if North Korean government cared to prevent the famine in the first place.
4. 1970 Bhola Cyclone
Sometimes governments delay relief efforts for unknown reasons. Such was the case with the Pakistani government’s response to the Bhola Cyclone that hit East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1970.
A day after the storm killed 500,000 people, Pakistan sent three gunboats and a ship carrying medical supplies to the disaster area. After ten days, the government had sent only an additional military transport aircraft.
Locals in East Pakistan were tired of the slow government response and started working independently to help the stricken area. They received supplies from the British Red Cross, but still had to wait for permission from the government before dropping aid to remote areas from the few airplanes they had.
A major problem occurred with Pakistan’s reluctance to take help from neighbor India. For years, India and Pakistan have fought over a piece of land called Kashmir along the northern Pakistan-Indian border, leading to poor relations between the two nations.
In a crisis, nations should forget their squabbles and help each other, but Pakistan couldn’t let its hatred of India go. At first Pakistan rejected any Indian aid and then when they finally accepted help, it was on the condition India would ship supplies by road transport.
Other countries came to the area’s aid, but government corruption charges were abundant. As a result, the Pakistani national government lost elections in East Pakistan the following year, ultimately leading to the Bangladesh Liberation War and Bangladesh’s independence.
3. 2010 Haiti Earthquake
Before a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti over a year ago, the country was already in dire straits. The government was well known for high levels of corruption and has gone through 32 coups since its formation. Half the country lived on less than $1 a day and clean drinking water was hard to come by for many of Haiti’s residents.
So when the earthquake hit the island nation in January of 2010, the government and its people were ill prepared. Between 92,000 and 300,000 people died with many more trapped under ruble. Lacking supplies and leadership, the Haiti government did very little to pull survivors from destroyed buildings. Instead, the Haitian people had to do most of the initial rescue efforts themselves.
Once aid arrived in Haiti, the government did little to distribute clean water and food to survivors. Much of the supplies remained backed up at airports and many emergency flights were diverted due to lack of space. Few relief trucks went out to dispense aid and as a result, Haitians were forced to loot.
During the aftermath, the government promised to create six villages outside of the capital city of Port-au-Prince that would house all those left homeless. The government, however, never created these villages. Very little was done to improve conditions and six months after the disaster, only 2 percent of the ruble had been removed.
2. Cyclone Nargis
Pretty common themes with bad government responses to disasters are corruption and government policies. So it comes to no surprise that the military junta government of Myanmar would make this list for how it handled a natural disaster.
On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis touched down in Myanmar, killing more than 100,000 people and causing $10 million in damages. At first the government refused any international aid until the United Nations forced the nation to accept help. Instead of taking all the aid they could, Myanmar officials limited aid supplies and no international aid workers were allowed into the country.
It took weeks before the junta government finally allowed international aid workers into Myanmar with additional supplies. At that time, only 25 percent of the people in need of relief received anything. Those unfortunate to not have received supplies were left to fend for themselves. This included buying foreign aid supplies put on the black market by government officials or trading physical labor for military aid.
1. Hurricane Katrina
It’s hard not to have Hurricane Katrina as the worst government response to a natural disaster. Although there were fewer deaths compared to other disasters, what makes this disaster the top spot is how a first world country could be so negligent in its response.
Poor response started even before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf. Federal, state and local governments delayed the evacuation process and did not supply enough transport buses to remove people from areas like New Orleans. Planning for the aftermath was also poor. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, only had enough supplies for 15,000 citizens in the area ready before the hurricane hit.
When the disaster struck, aid and order were slow to come by. Looting was rampant before the National Guard restored order after a week and there were not enough facilities put into order to distribute aid and relief. The lack of available pre-disaster supplies played a big part in slowing aid when 30,000 people showed up for help at the Superdome, which was set up to house 800 people. In one case, the government forgot to send help to survivors at the New Orleans convention center.
The reason for the slowness was due to an overall lack of government cooperation. Instead of working together, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and FEMA Director Michael Brown blamed each other for the lack of crisis management. Just like with other governments on this list, squabbles caused people to suffer.
FEMA was also highly criticized for its mismanagement of aid supplies during the aftermath. It is reported the organization turned away aid trucks from companies like Wal-Mart and it also didn’t allow emergency dispatch vehicles to go into affected areas without permission. Foreign aid was accepted, but slowly and with hesitation.
Some say it was a race issue that led to the government’s slow response. Others say it was a class issue. Whatever the case may be, the response to Hurricane Katrina was a major blemish for the United States and shows even a nation with available supplies can mismanage relief efforts.