Having lived and reported in Latin America for 20 years, I’ve done my fair share of disaster reporting. When I worked in Mexico and Haiti it felt like every week I was counting bodies, either from explosions in oil pipes or fireworks factories, or floods, or earthquakes and hurricanes.
I remember boarding an almost empty plane to Cancun to try and get in the way of Hurricane Mitch. When we got there everyone else was thronging the airport to get out – and I was bummed out when the hurricane took a left turn at the last minute and hit Honduras instead.
I once went to the Guatemalan border to cover floods there and couldn’t find a hotel room because the small town was filled with army officers. My memory of that day was speaking with a young lad who walked miles from his home town with a letter asking for help.
And one of my first big stories as a correspondent was just a few weeks after I started at UPI and I spent the night on the office couch doing regular updates to the death toll after an oil duct exploded in Guadalajara.
It would be insensitive to describe them as good times, but they were certainly memorable and they helped me become the reporter I am today.
Although none of what I did was as dramatic as this amazing rescue video shot yesterday near Rio:
I write this because I’ve just spent the last 36 hours writing about the terrible floods in Brazil. I’ve done similar stories it seems almost every year from here and this time the questions I wanted to ask were clear: Why does this keep happening and why do authorities never work on prevention?
The clearest answer was from the Gil Castello Branco, who does great work over at Contas Abertas, an NGO that monitors government spending. He told me:
“When these disasters occur we know what will happen, the politicians will survey the disaster area from a helicopter, then touch down and declare solidarity with the families and then announce a big rescue package so that he looks like the savior. What they should be doing is going there when the sun shines to stand on the edge of a hill and announce that people living there will be removed from the high risk area. But no one wants to do that.”
“It is a historic problem, Brazil always spends money after the fact rather than in prevention,” he added. “We turn that old saying on its head. We aren’t safe, we are sorry.”