11.02.12

From Europe, A Muted Hurricane Sandy Response

Europeans have spent lots of airtime and ink on Hurricane Sandy--but so far, very few euros.

European eyes were already fixed on the United States well before super-storm Sandy swept across the Atlantic and into the eastern seaboard this week. Coupled with the presidential election, a topic of popular and press obsession in much of Western Europe, the hurricane created a perfect storm of American coverage. As the International Herald Tribune reported, "in Europe, the winds from Hurricane Sandy were strong enough to blow most other news off front pages." Sky News and other British outlets broke regular programming to cut to Mayor Bloomberg's emergency speeches. Spain's El Pais covered the American side of the tragedy so extensively, that some readers complained that the paper was giving too little time to damage in Central America. And writing in the Guardian, Michael White agreed, arguing that the media coverage had been over-the-top, and US-biased. 

Indeed, in the United Kingdom, awareness of the smallest details of the storm - and its political backdrop - proved impressively granular. As one English university student told The Daily Beast, "I've heard that one of your Republican governors has even endorsed Obama because of the storm," referring to New Jersey governor Chris Christie. "The large one, with the jacket." In the capital markets, the temporary shutdown of all major American equity exchanges sent European markets for a wild ride on Monday and Tuesday, slamming indices from London to Berlin.

But beyond press chatter, price swings, and political prognostication, the European reaction to the storm has been limited. Some private charities have stepped up. For example, the British Red Cross has launched a Hurricane Sandy Appeal to raise funds for relief efforts. But no European government has yet committed money for American aid.

Last Sunday, as the storm killed 59 people in the Caribbean, the European Union offered condolences "to the people of Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas," and said that the "EU stands ready to provide support in the recovery efforts." The EU offered similar condolences to the "American people" on Tuesday and commended FEMA's response, but did not offer recovery support.

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, wrote, "I want to express my wholehearted solidarity with the American people ... France remains at the U.S. authorities' disposal to provide any and all assistance they deem necessary." Other nations that have officially expressed condolences include Pakistan, Colombia, South Korea, Nicaragua, China, Ukraine, Israel, Armenia, and Albania. The nation of Iran, with which the United States has no formal diplomatic relations, has offered to send an emergency aid team to New York City. The city of Toronto has offered New York City aid. And the Japanese-based Toyota corporation will donate $1 million to the American Red Cross to aid in relief efforts. The economic cost of the storm is likely to hit $50 billion.

"The Obama administration has been widely praised for what is seen as a rapid and effective response to Sandy."

Europe has reacted much differently to Hurricane Sandy than it did to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The perceived emergency response failure, and ensuing humanitarian crisis, brought far more expressions of support - and donations. Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom all made offers of monetary aid and logistical support as images of a packed Superdome splashed across television screens worldwide. German planes landed in New Orleans to deliver food rations, as well as a team of drainage specialists. (Of the $854 million in donations pledged, the US accepted and used about $40 million.)

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Regina Yahara-Splain cleans out her home after it was damaged by Superstorm Sandy on November 1, 2012 in Highlands, New Jersey. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

As Cameron Miles, a post-doctoral student in international law at the University of Cambridge, put it, "The Bush administration's response to Katrina was plagued with systemic errors, leading to a real human tragedy." Katrina killed 1,836 people, according to official estimates by the state of Louisiana; Sandy's toll in the US is currently over 90. "In much of Europe, the lower human cost of Sandy - and lack of political scandal - has muted both criticism of and sympathy for Americans. As Miles puts it, "The Obama administration has been widely praised for what is seen as a rapid and effective response to Sandy."

Whereas Katrina was perceived in Europe as a reflection on socioeconomic inequality and political incompetence, Sandy is now being seen as a reflection on global warming. Bulgarian EU commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said "Hurricane Sandy is yet another example of the increasing intensity and frequency of natural disasters." The French media also focused on the climate change angle, with an AFP story titled "Sandy: sign of worsening climate change" earning pick-up across broadcast and print outlets.