Monday, July 16, 2007

Acts of God

New Orleans, 2005

Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Author: Ted Steinberg, professor of history at Case Western Reserve, whose interests lie in "19th and 20th-century US environmental, legal, and social history". Some of his other books seem as though they should also be on my lists: American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn (2006); Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History (2002); Slide Mountain: Or, the Folly of Owning Nature (1995). Steinberg also seems to have an active career writing and commenting in the popular press (as his subject matter would seem to call for).

Arguing from a political-economy standpoint, Steinberg writes that the way disasters caused by hurricane, flooding, tornado, earthquake, and heat waves have been naturalized in the past century has obscured the fact that much of the human damage done is exacerbated by decisions made by government and corporate interests. This argument is much the same as the one made by EJ activist Robert Bullard in the speech I saw him give at the ASLE meeting about H. Katrina: namely, that the way we talk about the complex of damage associated with Katrina has taken blame off of FEMA and state, local, and federal government, and instead put it on God/nature, meaning that few or no changes in infrastructure are likely to be made. Of course, there is a strong class element to this argument: Steinberg and Bullard both say that because those likely to be lastingly affected by disasters tend to be poor, and sometimes black or Native American or Latino, this rhetoric has meant that natural disasters just intensify immiseration in these communities - an intensification which is seen as "nobody's fault".


Return of the Suppressed
One: Last Call for Judgment Day:
The Charleston earthquake of 1886 serves as an example of a transition event between an earlier way of imagining natural disasters - as punishments from God - and a more neutralized "nature did it" stance. Steinberg says interesting things about how the intense reaction of the black community in Charleston was pathologized as superstitious and primitive, especially by a business class which was eager to dismiss the catastrophe and move on with commerce.

Charleston, 1886

Two: Disaster as Archetype: This chapter covers the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the effects of which were, Steinberg says, covered up by a business community interested in maintaining the viability of SF as a city (they blamed the fire for the damage, not an earthquake, since the latter would be harder to explain away as a one-time event).

Three: Do-it-Yourself Deathscape: Just as wealthy San Franciscans attempted to keep their city from being classified as an "earthquake zone", developers in Florida in the early twentieth century defied all evidence that the state was in a hurricane epicenter, a pattern which has continued throughout the state's history. Here, Steinberg calls out such invested actors as the Miami Herald for keeping the community in a state of denial about the true impact of the disasaters that have befallen it, greatly affecting its poorest members.

Interlude: Body Counting: Reasons why the natural disasters which occurred in the fifty years between 1880 and 1930 were so deadly; and forecasts about the deadliness of future events.

San Francisco, 1906

Federalizing Risk
Four: Building for Apocalypse:
Back to Florida, and an examination of new federal insurance programs which amortized expense of rebuilding after hurricanes onto federal taxpayers, easing the way for developers to build in riskier and riskier locations. Steinberg writes: "As risk and space diverged it became harder to locate blame when calamity did strike and more difficult to discern that the federalization of risk did not benefit everyone equally" (81). Among the people who definitely don't benefit: those living in mobile homes. Steinberg includes quotes from "manufactured housing" industry spokespeople, who excuse their shoddy buildings by arguing that poor people LIKE the "value" of these houses (and, implicitly, don't mind living in conditions that rich people would reject as unsafe).

Five: Uncle Sam - Floodplan Recidivist: A local story about St. Charles, Missouri, where mobile homes situated on floodplains were especially hard hit in the 1993 flooding. Steinberg uses the tale to explore the ways in which the poor end up living in more dangerous locales, and the way they are then undercompensated or even blamed for damage from "natural" disaster.

Interlude: The Perils of Private Property:
Examination of upward trends in insurance claims from weather events, and the idea that although these trends are undeniable, and unassociated with natural activity, official rhetoric still holds that increased activity - and not unwise building policy - is to blame for the problem.

Missouri, 1993

Containing Calamity
Six: The Neurotic Life of Weather Control:
The story of those who would hope to change the course of hurricanes and other storms by "seeding" clouds (this was also mentioned in Ross, Strange Weather), thereby manifesting complete control over weather. The chapter also includes the voices of those who oppose this kind of activity on the grounds of religion or ecological feeling.

Seven: Forecasting at the Fair Weather Service: Another social cause of damage from natural disaster: the unequal funding of weather forecasting and warning systems, and technocratic trust placed in technological fixes at the expense of proper funding and staffing.

Eight: Who Pays?: The answer: Poor people. This chapter talks about why this is the case, pointing to underfunding (see chapter seven), and the idea that "relief officials have tended to embrace a wrong-headed set of assumptions of about the poor" (174) which holds that they will only squander or misuse any funds disbursed to them to rebuild after disasters.

In the Journal of American History, J. Brooks Flippen found little to critique, writing that Steinberg's book features an interesting combination of social, cultural, and political history, even if his argument becomes a bit "polemical".

Vocab words:
"nosology" ("a list or catalogue of known diseases"); "caissons" ("a large water-tight case or chest used in laying foundations of bridges, etc., in deep water"); "groins" (in the context of a building element: "a deep trench, or excavation"); "pluvial" ("of or relating to rain; characterized by much rain, rainy").

Louisiana, 2005

Books to follow up on: Primary:
Weatherwise magazine.

Secondary: Charles Bates and John Fuller, America's Weather Warriors, 1814-1985 (1986); Steven Biel, Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster (1996); Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers (1982); Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (1965); Mark Monmonier, Cartographies of Danger: Mapping Hazards in America (1997); Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979).

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