Remember There’s No Such Thing As A Natural Disaster

Scottish radical geographer, professor, and author Neil Smith died at age 58 this past weekend. It’s worth revisiting his groundbreaking, established-wisdom-challenging work, including his well-known declaration post-Hurricane Katrina that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster:

It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster – causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus. Hurricane Katrina provides the most startling confirmation of that axiom.

The Bush administration…is happy to attribute the dismal record of death and destruction on the Gulf Coast – perhaps 1200 lives by the latest counts – to an act of nature. It has proven itself not just oblivious but ideologically opposed to mounting scientific evidence of global warming and the fact that rising sea-levels make cities such as New Orleans, Venice, or Dacca immediately vulnerable to future calamity. Whatever the political tampering with science, the supposed “naturalness” of disasters here becomes an ideological camouflage for the social (and therefore preventable) dimensions of such disasters, covering for quite specific social interests.

Vulnerability, in turn, is highly differentiated; some people are much more vulnerable than others. Put bluntly, in many climates rich people tend to take the higher land leaving to the poor and working class land more vulnerable to flooding and environmental pestilence. This is a trend not an iron clad generalization: oceanfront property marks a major exception in many places, and Bolivia’s La Paz, where the wealthy live in the cooler valley below 13,000 feet, is another. In New Orleans, however, topographic gradients doubled as class and race gradients, and as the Katrina evacuation so tragically demonstrated, the better off had cars to get out, credit cards and bank accounts for emergency hotels and supplies, their immediate families likely had resources to support their evacuation, and the wealthier also had the insurance policies for rebuilding.

When the National Guard did arrive, it was quickly apparent that they were working under orders to control the city militarily and protect property rather than to bring aid to the desperate. Angry citizens, who waded through the fetid city looking for promised buses that never came, were prevented, at gunpoint, from getting out. “We are not turning the West Bank [a New Orleans suburb] into another Superdome,” argued one suburban sheriff. Groups of refugees who tried to organize water, food and shelter collectively were also broken up at gunpoint by the national guard. Numerous victims reported being besieged and the National Guard was under orders not to distribute their own water (Bradshaw and Slonsky, 2005; Whitney 2005). As late as four days after the hurricane hit New Orleans, with government aid still largely absent, President Bush advised refugees that they ought to rely on private charities such as the Salvation Army (Breed 2005).

Unfortunately, shocking as it was, the tragedy of New Orleans is neither unique nor even especially unexpected, except perhaps in its scale. The race and class dimensions of who escaped and who was victimized by this decidedly unnatural disaster not only could have been predicted, and was, but it follows a long history of like experiences. In 1976, a devastating earthquake eventually killed 23,000 people in Guatemala and made 1.5 million people homeless. I say “eventually,” because the vast majority of deaths were not the direct result of the physical event itself but played out in the days and weeks that followed. Massive international relief flooded into Guatemala but it was not funneled to the most affected and neediest peasants, who eventually came to call the disaster a “classquake” (O’Keefe et. al. 1976). In communities surrounding the Indian Ocean, ravaged by the tsunami of December 2004, the class and ethnic fissures of the old societies are re-etched deeper and wider by the patterns of response and reconstruction. There, “reconstruction” forcibly prevents local fishermen from re-establishing their livelihoods, planning instead to secure the oceanfront for wealthy tourists. Locals increasingly call the reconstruction effort the “second tsunami.” In New Orleans there are already murmurings of Katrina as “Hurricane Bush.” It is not only in the so-called Third World, we can now see, that one’s chances of surviving a disaster are more than anything dependent on one’s race, ethnicity and social class.

Read the rest at Understanding Katrina

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  • pinroot

    So at what point in the past did “natural disasters” stop occurring and “un-natural disasters” take their place? Or are we now redefining the term “natural disaster” so that any disaster can be blamed on man?

  • Matthew Lipscomb

    News flash: Rich people are better off. So who cares really. 

  • Matthew Lipscomb

    News flash: Rich people are better off. So who cares really. 

  • alizardx

    Is the fire that destroys housing developments county/city planners permitted for known semi-wilderness fire zones a “natural disaster” ? (thinking SoCal fires) Or flooded-out housing developments planners permitted for known flood zones? Those “100 year floods” are becoming yearly events.

  • alizardx

    Is the fire that destroys housing developments county/city planners permitted for known semi-wilderness fire zones a “natural disaster” ? (thinking SoCal fires) Or flooded-out housing developments planners permitted for known flood zones? Those “100 year floods” are becoming yearly events.

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