Major disaster? Obama has no respect for the meaning of words

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By Kenneth Roy

I know exactly where I was as a young man on a certain January evening in 1968. I was sitting by the radio on the top floor of a Victorian villa on the front at Portobello, listening to the resignation speech of Malcolm Muggeridge as rector of Edinburgh University. He quit on an issue of principle. He opposed contraceptive pills for students.

It sounds ridiculous now, but many people were excited by St Mugg’s last stand and the BBC rated it so highly that they broadcast it live. He was a tremendous performer, and by the thunderous climax of his speech he almost had me convinced that the end of the world was nigh. For some people in Scotland that night, it was.

For 48 hours the Met Office had been charting the progress of a secondary depression heading towards the British Isles. The weather experts had expected it to pass over St Kilda and the Faroe Islands. It didn’t. It turned and kept deepening, its radius widening, the force of its wind gathering. By midnight it was centred over Benbecula. For the next six hours it tore across Scotland, hitting parts of the country with devastating ferocity.

Hurricane Low Q peaked between 4 and 5 am. Gusts reached 125 mph, radio masts collapsed on Lowther Hill in Lanarkshire, telephone lines blew down on Tiree, and a 60-foot-high crane weighing 600 tons fell to the concrete bottom of the Scott Lithgow dry dock on the Clyde. Five people died in Greenock. Three were trapped when a dredger capsized and sank off Princes Pier; a chimney head fell into a room in Margaret Street, killing a young woman as she lay in bed; an employee of the town’s sugar works was suffocated in the rubble of her house.

Another chimney head collapsed in the Victorian villa in Portobello where, a few hours earlier, I had been listening to Malcolm Muggeridge’s prophetic warning about the collapse of civilisation. It missed one of the owners of the house, a disabled man called Ronnie, by inches. Civilisation in Portobello survived after a fashion; Ronnie too. But he was one of the lucky ones.

Glasgow, unfamiliar with a natural phenomenon of such violence, suffered greater damage than anywhere else in Scotland. The bodies of four of the nine people who died in the city were recovered after a 12-hour search in the basement of a three-storey tenement in Dumbarton Road. One of the victims, Anne Best, lived in England but had come north to attend her mother’s funeral. She was staying with her sister in the top flat, but because of the storm she and her three-year-old daughter moved down one storey to the flat occupied by Janet Gowran and her 10-year-old daughter. Both mothers and both children were killed by falling masonry. One of the survivors from the same block said that he and his wife had just moved bedrooms after a fall of soot when the chimney head came down, the ceiling caved in, and they leapt for their lives into a close full of screaming women.

A shortage of materials and incessant rain compounded Glasgow’s misery. Thousands of houses in the city were damaged by the hurricane, their occupants pleading unsuccessfully for tarpaulins to cover the roofs. Scotland’s most destructive storm for 40 years left 20 dead and many homeless, with the minor incidental result of denying the resigning rector the prominence to which he was accustomed. But there were no theatricals, no round-the-clock media coverage. Willie Ross, the Secretary of State for Scotland, visited one of the temporary shelters in Glasgow and the rest of us got on with our lives, with or without a roof over our heads.

I thought about the hurricane of January 1968, and the stoical Scottish response to it, while noting with incredulity the hysterical over-reaction on both sides of the Atlantic to what the president of the United States has described as a ‘major disaster’.

Millions of Americans have been temporarily without power – an eloquent symbol of how the powerless of the world must feel every day of their short lives. There has been disruption to public transport as a result of flooding. Many properties have been wrecked or damaged. Other inconveniences have been visited upon the people, including the suspension of the New York stock exchange where the loot is made. The death toll at the time of writing is 64. A ‘major disaster’? No. In 1968, in a country with one-sixtieth of the population of the United States, 20 people died. The equivalent in America this week would have been 1,200 dead, not 64.

But the great storm of January 1968 was not a ‘major disaster’ either. To anyone with a respect for the meaning of words – unlike the president of the United States who has none – a ‘major disaster’ occurred on Boxing Day 2004 in a number of countries bordering the Indian Ocean, where (according to the United Nations), 229,866 people died in a tsunami.

It may be, however, that a re-definition of what constitutes a major disaster will be necessary following this week’s regrettable interruption to the life of the United States. From now on, a mere disaster will be inflated into a major one if it happens to afflict the eastern seaboard of the United States, where many of the world’s richest people live. In other parts of the world, it will be continue to be stuff that happens.

It is interesting, too, to reflect on the relative politics of the non-major disaster in Scotland in 1968 and of the non-major disaster in the United States in 2012. Why, for example, did Glasgow suffer disproportionately that night? Why were nine of the 20 deaths in that city?

The answer is to be found in a report commissioned by the UK government of the day into the state of Scotland’s housing: the Cullingworth report, perhaps the most important official document in our post-war history, certainly one of the most influential. It was published only a few months before the great storm.

Cullingworth (a Glasgow University professor) estimated that 273,000 houses in Scotland were unfit to live in and recommended that they should be demolished ‘rapidly’. These figures stood in shaming contrast to the official claim that only 100,000 houses were unfit for habitation. In many rural areas, particularly in the Highlands, there were housing conditions as bad as Glasgow’s if not worse: ‘We have seen families inhabiting rural cottages in unbelievably squalid conditions – without water, electricity or sanitation’.

It was the dense concentration of slum housing which made Glasgow’s situation ‘unique in Britain’ according to Cullingworth. In a report all the more effective for its controlled anger, he wrote:

Even the Glaswegian who sees only the often imposing, yet on closer inspection often crumbling, front exterior seldom appreciates how revolting and inhumane are the conditions inside in the closes, on the common staircases, and in the back courts, and even if he does occasionally glimpse the physical squalor which is out of sight to the passer-by, he can have no conception of the extent of the problem.

The Americans were fortunate to be able to evacuate their most threatened citizens. Even if there had been a warning, which there wasn’t, it would have been impossible to execute a similar plan in Glasgow in 1968; so comprehensively poor was the housing, it would have meant clearing the entire inner city of three quarters of a million people.

Cullingworth’s indictment pushed the government and local authorities into a realisation of their failure to house the Scottish people adequately, just as ‘Cathy Come Home’, Jeremy Sandford’s 1966 television drama, changed official attitudes to the homeless in the UK as a whole. But it was the great storm of January 1968, and the havoc it wreaked in the slums of Glasgow, which reinforced the message. That was real politics.

There is politics behind the American storm too. Will it sweep Obama back to power on the high tide of his own overblown rhetoric? Has Sandy come to the rescue of the unimpressive