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What's 'natural' about a natural disaster? Not much

What we call "natural" disasters -- hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, tornadoes -- are not natural at all. This is true, first, because nothing about the experience of a natural disaster feels natural. Watching floodwaters top the banks of rivers, crest over bridges, creep into homes, and wash a dangerous, toxic soup laden with debris, factory chemicals, and bacteria; seeing winds over 100 mph peel walls and roofs from buildings; abandoning one’s home in a desperate scramble to save family members, pets, precious belongings -- none of that should be within the realm of the normal.

It is extraordinary, terrible, and discombobulating, a displacement from the daily routine and the familiar landscape. Individual experiences of so-called natural disasters are a disjuncture from life as one usually expects it, a moment when nature seems to turn against us.

But what if these devastating results are in fact a sign that systems of environmental exploitation, corporate greed, and laissez-faire government are working as they should be? And what if, along with these systems, the storms are getting worse because of human-driven climate change? These possibilities constitute the second thing that renders the term "natural" disaster a misnomer.

The damage of natural disasters comes not from the environment, but from people who, instead of working to advance the safety and wellbeing of their communities, historically focused on profit in a set of choices that American historians of the last two decades have thoroughly documented and condemned.

This is not an undue politicization of a tragedy. Indeed, politics help create the conditions for a hurricane to become a tragedy. Much of what we are seeing in both Houston and Florida right now, in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, has been wrought by development corporations, officials, and politicians who apparently refused to let science inform the policies that they implemented.

That racialized city planning, corporate overreach, and dismissal of scientific research worsen the effects of hurricanes is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Historians and scholars of so-called "natural" disasters have been writing for decades about how the intertwined calamities of nature, corporate greed, and government mismanagement punish people of color and those who live under the poverty line.

As human-induced climate change accelerates, scientists have conducted studies suggesting that climate change and warming oceans could make, and perhaps are making, hurricanes worse and worse. The most obvious example presaging Hurricane Harvey is Hurricane Katrina, which blasted through New Orleans in 2005, submerged 85% of the city, displaced one million people, and killed at least 1,200.

Historian Craig Colten published An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (2005) mere months before Katrina. His book, which outlines how the city’s built environment ignored and defied the seasonal floods of the Mississippi River, was a prescient warning. In the preface to the 2006 paperback edition, he emphasized his earlier argument that New Orleans’s "history of class and racial segregation created an uneven landscape in terms of vulnerability," with African Americans occupying the lowest ground upon which the cheapest housing was built.

Others sounded the warning bell before Katrina, too. Director of the National Hurricane Center Max Mayfield said in May 2005 that he could not "emphasize enough how concerned (he was) with southeast Louisiana because of its unique characteristics, its complex levee system." Still other scholars emphasized the erosion of Louisiana's protective barrier islands and the destruction of its absorptive marshes as petrochemical development intensified on the coast.

Katrina was not a sudden act of God. It was a storm that New Orleans residents, scholars, and scientists alike had predicted and feared for decades because they were aware of the city’s dangerous built environment, its racial history, and its increasing vulnerability in an age of climate change.

Journalist Naomi Klein, in her bestseller The Shock Doctrine: Disaster Capitalism (2007), argues that corporations and governments working in tandem take advantage of catastrophic events -- from the war in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina -- to force through exploitative, controversial policies on a population too devastated and distracted to protest.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is her most convincing case study. Private security firms like Blackwater earned millions in the weeks after Katrina as they enforced martial law in New Orleans. During the 2014 corruption trial of former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, developers admitted to offering $5 million in bribes to city officials for housing contracts. Finally, the state of Louisiana privatized the city’s entire public school system and subsequently fired 7,500 public school teachers and employees to make way for charter schools. All of this constituted a second assault on New Orleans residents, in which "Katrina relief morphed into unregulated corporate handouts, providing neither decent jobs nor functional public services."

In his book Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (2015) historian Stuart B. Schwartz argues that Katrina "was no anomaly," but the "logical outcome of a long history of encounters between changing social and political concerns and challenges presented by the geophysical conditions in the islands and rimlands of the Greater Caribbean." The convergence of ecological, social, economic, and political factors -- rapid industrialization of the Gulf Coast, post-1950 segregation in New Orleans, and reduced federal spending for disaster mitigation -- conspired to ruin neighborhoods, kill thousands, and spur an out-migration from New Orleans.

Terrible, indeed. But these wounds were consistent with, and the result of, the one-two punch of racial marginalization and environmental manipulation.

Hurricane Katrina was the most illuminating recent example of what happens when cities with fraught histories of racial discrimination and rampant development undergo a storm, earthquake, or flood. But historians have mined other countless examples in the United States. Ted Steinberg in Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (2000) provides a comprehensive look at disasters from hurricanes to tornadoes to earthquakes in the U.S. over the past 100 years. He excoriates corporations and governments alike, decrying the concept of "natural disaster" as created by "those in power...rationaliz(ing) the economic choices that...explain why the poor and people of color...tend to wind up in harm’s way."

In Texas right now, the people of the Gulf Coast are undergoing the latest iteration of this ongoing cycle of tragedies. Damaged oil refineries and fuel facilities have released over two million pounds of toxic chemicals, including carcinogens like benzene and nitrogen oxide, into the air in the past week -- equivalent to the amount those factories usually exude over a three-month period. The city's Depression-era drainage system is obsolete and under-regulated because of the massive swell of development that has left Houston a slab of concrete with nowhere for floodwater drainage.

Local politicians are in the pockets of large developers, who donate large sums to ensure that zoning laws and building regulations remain at a minimum so that their profits stay high. Together, they have built a city uniquely prone to flooding -- and it did not have to be that way. Corporate overreach and government indifference have forged a punishing world that hurts the most vulnerable for the sake of money. Within the context of this cruelty, the damage in the wake of Harvey appears almost to be expected within a city constructed to worsen floods and elevate corporate gain.

Maybe there are paths out. Writer and thinker Rebecca Solnit, in A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), allows for the possibility of individual efficacy despite the forces of nature and the strictures of society to reflect on the ways in which people help each other after disasters: "Disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times."

She is right. To recognize the upwelling of aid and the widely shared desire to help others is to remember that the choices that we make as individuals do still matter and that the love we demonstrate for one another has meaning. Historian Jacob A. C. Remes coined a term to describe this phenomenon, in which communities afflicted by disasters come together to form “networks of solidarity and obligation”: "disaster citizenship," formulated in his book Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (2016).

Expression of this hope, of this love, does not need to be facile and sentimental. Individual action cannot stand in for the kinds of wide-ranging change that might restructure the systems of environmental exploitation, corporatist greed, racism, and classism that transform a hurricane into a disaster.

It's too soon to know what route Florida and Texas's Gulf Coast will travel. Let's hope that the process of recovery is not strong-armed by the same corporate bosses and indifferent state actors who ignored FEMA maps, curtailed zoning laws, and covered Houston in concrete -- and that Houston's recovery can be a model of compassion, public-spiritedness, and community-consciousness to which we can aspire in the future, in which disaster citizenship persists long after the immediate crisis resolves.

What moments of community solidarity can do is suggest a way forward, to show us what reform could look like, and what kind of world it could help to build.

Caroline Grego is Ph.D. candidate in environmental history at the University of Colorado - Boulder writing her dissertation on the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893. She is also a contributing editor of Erstwhile, an American history blog, where this post originally appeared.

Image: U.S. National Guard

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