Sunday, November 1, 2020

Watching Sandy at Yale

I am teaching a course at Yale this semester on the history of disasters -- "Disasters in America" -- and Hurricane Sandy has made landfall on the syllabus right between a class on terrorism as disaster, and a class on the 1927 Mississippi River Flood. As Sandy unfolds, I have been reminded of the pioneering sociologist of disaster Charles Fritz, who sounded a little disappointed in 1960 when he wrote, “The social scientist, unlike the engineer, cannot produce destructive experiments at will.” While I wouldn’t wish a big storm on anybody (neither would Fritz, surely), for me and my students, watching the storm and its aftermath has offered a special opportunity to test the theories and insights we've been developing so far this term. 

Based on our understanding of past hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, and other calamitous events in American history, we are developing a list of what we’ll be watching for in Sandy’s aftermath. Stay tuned for updates from me and my students.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What Government is For

Disasters tell America what government is for. The people can criticize Washington's involvement in their affairs, but when a hurricane comes crashing down upon a shoreline, the Democratic party is given the opportunity to do a "I Told You So" dance. Hurricane Sandy was an occasion that the Democrats capitalized on to explain that government should play a more active role in America. When everything is taken from you, you want help. You want...NEED...a supporter. It is entirely possible that  the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent national aid is why Barack Obama was reelected on November 6. Or, of course, Sandy could have merely served as a significant distraction from all of the other problems that the presidential candidates had to face.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Seeing the Federal Light

I've published (what I think is) an interesting historical comparison between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's response to Sandy, and Louisiana Governor John McKeithen's response to Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Check it out on Slate.

Being Conscious of Our Blame

The concept of blame is extremely important in understanding the aftermath and impacts of a natural disaster, but rarely are we conscious of the extent to which we blame natural disasters for the events after the storm. What will we actually blame Hurricane Sandy for doing? What destruction or devastation can be attributed to the hurricane? Usually, we quantify the blame of hurricanes in lost dollars and lost time. However, as the media has been pointing out for the last week, there is the potential to place blame on Hurricane Sandy for lost votes and potentially a lost election next Tuesday.

We heard over and over on national news networks that the hurricane was headed toward several swing states and could have a big influence on early voting numbers, a metric in which President Obama is said to be doing particularly well in. With the storm either discouraging or preventing people from leaving their homes to cast an early vote, the swing state returns on Election Day could potentially be impacted. This framework obviously raises the stakes of the storm and prompts us to entertain the question: What if Hurricane Sandy goes down in history as the storm that decided a presidential election? Sure, this question is purely speculative with just four days before the race is decided, but this thought is worth exploring as it allows us to question the legacies of natural disaster and how we re-appropriate them to explain major moments in history.

Again and again in our study of disasters, we’ve wrestled with the notion that natural disasters are “acts of God”, an assertion that allows us to relieve ourselves of the burdens of cause and blame. We have continuously seen how framing disasters in this way in the aftermath of disaster has often been problematic, long preventing us from exploring the role that humans often play in the devastation that we ascribe to hurricanes or floods. On November 7th, I’ll be very interested in seeing if Hurricane Sandy becomes increasingly characterized as an act of God within the political world, with one side potentially using it to explain a loss and the other to support a victory. Before we cement the role of Hurricane Sandy in the historical discourse of the 2012 Presidential Election, we should take a step back and seriously evaluate any claims being made about the impact of the storm on the outcome of the race.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney helps to load donated goods as he attends a storm relief campaign event in Kettering, Ohio, on Oct. 30, 2012. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images )
President Barack Obama asks a question during a Federal Emergency Management Agency briefing about Hurricane Sandy, as it threatens the East Coast, at FEMA headquarters in Washington, October 28, 2012. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)


I think I'm more curious than anything about how expectations played into disaster experience -- we haven't discussed this too much in class, but the days of weather predictions seem like something unique about a hurricane that a terrorist event or an earthquake wouldn't have. Most of us who were in New Haven had the experience shaped entirely by what we expected the storm to be like from news outlets, Yale Office of Emergency Management emails, and memories of Irene last year, while NYC had an expected storm surge of less than 10 ft and got one that was over 15ft, with likely more flooding and power outages than expected. Are disasters in the age of The Weather Channel experienced in a different way than a flood in 1889 would because we have different expectations? Do warning systems help us prepare but make us more anxious about what will happen?

The Stubborn New Yorker & Sandy

Having experienced Sandy from my NJ home twenty miles outside NYC, I'm interested in how the hurricane reveals certain city-wide attitudes prevalent among those affected in the Big Apple.  One television reporter asserted that the real danger of the storm lay not in how New York is situated in the Hudson, but in the stubbornness of the average New Yorker; the perceived unwillingness to take precaution or evacuate would be the cause of death, was the thought.  While I cannot remember the news channel on which this statement was made, I'm including a link to a similarly-themed New York Post article, written mid-storm on Monday night.  How can we compare this observation to the accounts of avid attention paid to authority in the aftermath of 9/11, an aftermath many New Yorkers associate with altruism in its highest form?  I'd also like to point out the irony of how easily the socioeconomic tiers of a city can be highlighted by a map showing which subway lines are up and down, and in media statements averring what are considered to be the most pressing public issues in an area dripping with hierarchy.

"Floodites defy city & take their chances":

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mike Davis's 1995 article "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn" is just about as provocative as the title suggests. Seaside Malibu is gorgeous, exclusive, and full of mansions. But it is also surrounded by hundreds of acres of kindling: dry chaparral and scrub that depend on, and are defined by, frequent wildfires. This means Malibu homeowners face inferno year in and year out, and must mobilize massive government resources to protect their homes. Davis draws a bitter contrast with Westlake, an LA neighborhood that likewise suffers frequent fires. Westlake fires, however, are the product of overcrowding, landlord greed, and negligent governance. They are thus entirely preventable, unlike those in Malibu, which will keep burning every year.

Rebecca Greenfield's article The Green Case for Not Rebuilding Jersey Shore Beaches (published today) is not so provocative. The Jersey Shore is not a wealthy enclave, and any anger in her article is environmental, not social. But her argument is fundamentally similar: rebuilding Jersey beaches means large-scale dredging--a long, costly, destructive process. Moreover, it is only a temporary fix. Hurricanes are beyond human control (like chaparral fires), and, as Emily pointed out, they will keep happening. This means that dredging sand to rebuild beaches could become as routine as filling in potholes--as may already be happening in Singer Island, Florida (link from Greenfield's article).

Telling New Jersey to give up on its beaches seems just about as popular as telling Malibu residents to abandon their mansions. The beach is vital for the local identity and economy, and Greenfield doesn't present a solution beyond Cuomo's "rebuild[ing] better." Putting the sand back doesn't solve anything, but I also feel pessimistic about more elaborate plans. Blame it on reading about the 2011 destruction of the world's deepest breakwater, or maybe my similarly pessimistic classmate Ira. Do I have a right to tell New Jersey what to do? Perhaps not, but this isn't just a New Jersey problem. Recovery money comes from federal, state, and private sources, and habitat destruction is everyone's problem.

(Malibu isn't the only California city where development has plowed headfirst into fire-prone hills: check out this visualization of an expanding Oakland)