Hurricanes, historians, and environmental injustice: De-naturalizing “natural” disaster

Contributing editor Caroline Grego, whose dissertation is about the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893, reflects on historians’ and historically-minded thinkers’ scholarship on “natural disasters.” Header photograph by Marcus Yam for Getty Images.

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; having the breath knocked from one’s body by winds that top 100 miles per hour, and seeing those winds peel walls and roofs from buildings, or snatch the leaves from trees until the August greenery is gone; 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 complete 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. “Environmental injustice” might be a better term than “natural disaster” for the catastrophes wrought by nature and humans alike.

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’re seeing in Houston now, as the storm clouds of Hurricane Harvey clear, has been wrought by development corporations, officials, and politicians who apparently refused to let science inform the policies that they implemented. To dismiss the human forces that made this a disaster is willfully ignorant and dangerous and will, in the future, kill more people and ruin more communities.

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Flooding in northwest Houston on August 30th, 2017. Image by Adrees Latif for Reuters.

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. Scholars have shouted themselves hoarse, Cassandra-like, warning that poorly planned city expansion amplifies the impacts of hurricanes and other catastrophes, especially on the working class and people of color. And as human-induced climate change accelerates, scientists have conducted studies suggesting that climate change and warming oceans—the fuel of hurricanes—could make, and perhaps are making, hurricanes worse and worse.  Finally, of course, communities impacted by storms in those ways have been decrying this treatment for even longer.

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, and killed at least 1,200 people. Louisiana State University’s 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 an eerily 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.[1] He also urged city officials to “keep the environment in mind” and to implement “sensible adjustments in land-use practices” that could “reduce risk and prevent another calamitous outcome when another potent storm sweeps over the city.”[2]

Others sounded the warning bell before Katrina, too. Journalist Mark Fischetti wrote in 2001 for the Scientific American that a “big, slow-moving hurricane” could “drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water.”[3] 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, journalists, 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.

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Flooding from Hurricane Katrina in downtown New Orleans. Credit AP.

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 (Nagin was ultimately convicted for receiving $82,000 in bribes himself). Then-Vice President Dick Cheney ordered emergency crews to halt work restoring power to two rural hospitals so that they could restore power to the Colonial Pipeline, a diesel pipeline of which the Koch brothers owned a majority share. 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 added up to a second assault on New Orleans residents, in which “Katrina relief morphed into unregulated corporate handouts, providing neither decent jobs nor functional public services”—and the high costs of these corporate subsidies on government coffers led to the “gutting” of public services for the unemployed, displaced, and suffering—that is, the people who were actually hurt by Katrina.[4]

Historian Stuart B. Schwartz acknowledges the neoliberalization of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, but also seeks to situate Hurricane Katrina within the context of “the long and still evolving history of the impact of hurricanes” in his book Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (2015). Katrina, Schwartz argues, “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.”[5] The convergence of ecological, social, economic, and political factors—rapid industrialization of the Gulf Coast, demographic change and post-1950 segregation in New Orleans, reduced federal spending for disaster mitigation, and Katrina’s stall over the city—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.[6]

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A map showing the depth of flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Map by NOAA.

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—and then choose a path forward that prioritizes private profit over environmentally conscious, community-oriented recovery. But historians have mined countless examples over the past 100 years in the United States. Ted Steinberg in Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (2000) provides a comprehensive—and frequently polemical—look at disasters from hurricanes to tornadoes to earthquakes. He excoriates corporations and governments alike, decrying the concept of “natural disaster”:

Worse still, by recruiting an angry God or chaotic nature to their cause, those in power have been able to rationalize the economic choices that help to explain why the poor and people of color—who have largely borne the brunt of these disasters—tend to wind up in harm’s way. The official response to natural disaster is profoundly dysfunctional in the sense that it has both contributed to a continuing cycle of death and destruction and also normalized the injustices of class and race.

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.

Over the decades, the city drained and backfilled the bayous and swamps that once pocked the plain that Houston sits on, depriving the region of the wetlands that absorb floodwaters. Floodwaters instead accumulate in homes and streets—as they are doing now, to devastating effect. Developers have ignored the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s maps showing floodplain and floodway areas. In localities that did require developers to obtain permits demonstrating that they have undertaken mitigation efforts, Texas A&M researchers working with the non-profit Houston Aphasia Recovery Center found that fewer than half of the permits had been completed. Houston developers, aided by politicians who preferred campaign donations over their constituents’ safety and well-being, 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.

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A satellite image released by NOAA of Hurricane Irma, a rare Category 5 storm, as it barrels towards the Caribbean this week. Image courtesy ABC News.

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 are, most basically, terrible, tragic, grievous, and no matter what positive side effects and possibilities they produce, they are not to be desired. But by the same measure, those side effects should not be ignored because they arise amid devastation. The desires and possibilities awakened are so powerful they shine even from wreckage, carnage, and ashes. What happens here is relevant elsewhere. And the point is not to welcome disasters. They do not create these gifts, but they are the one avenue through which the gifts arrive. Disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times.[7]

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. Schwartz agrees, pointing out something similar in his section on Katrina: “somewhat lost… were the stories of community solidarities and humanitarian responses.”[8] 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).[9]

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Disaster citizenship in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Image by David C. Phillip for the AP.

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 Houston and Texas’s Gulf Coast will travel because the immediate work of relief hasn’t happened yet. The water has yet to recede. Tens of thousands are displaced from homes that may not exist anymore, and dozens have drowned. So the direction of long-term recovery has not been determined. 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.

In the meantime, consider donating to one of these organizations.

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[1] Craig Colten, An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), xix.

[2] Ibid., xx.

[3] Both quoted in Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 198.

[4] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, (New York: Picador Publishing, 2007), 522.

[5] Stuart B. Schwartz, Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 319.

[6] I would be remiss if I did not mention Cedric Johnson’s edited collection, The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011). This is just one more of dozens of books written on Hurricane Katrina; I have barely grazed the surface.

[7] Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, (New York: Penguin, 2009), 6.

[8] Schwartz, 327.

[9] Jacob A. C. Remes, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 4.

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