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)

Silences from afar

My poor soul is still "stuck" in northern New Mexico where I went for fall break, mening I've been without much phone or internet for almost two weeks now. Between the airlines and the subway and not having a solid ride situation on either end of the country, I'm still here in the mountainous and sage-covered Taos County. I am happy to report, though, that as far as most folks out here are concerned, Sandy was no big deal. In fact, most people who know me here asked, "what are you doing in New Mexico for so long?" to which I reply "Sandy" to which, mostly, they just look at me until I add the amendment, "...the New York. City."

This situation has led me to only reading bits and pieces about Sandy, mostly from facebook posts (to be honest), which has me thinking about the scale of silences that happen in regard to disasters. Of course, there are historical silences; people die in tenement fires but few remember them while corporations and the Army Corp have been building shoddy infrastructure for...well, pretty much since the United States has undertaken big infrastructure projects. And yet, there are also contemporary silences. For most of us here in northern New Mexico, the hurricane is a world away with only tangential connections. While rain poured on the Northeast and recovery teams started clearing the streets, I've actually spotted three largish brush/wild fires. All those warnings and images of the death and destruction and loss didn't quite make it over this part of the Rocky Mountains until well after the temporally-designated "disaster" was over. Information, stories, and memory aren't distributed equally. Historical silences make possible current silences as well.

As the late piƱon-scented sunset graces my face, I can honestly say that experiencing this blockage/dismissal of information pertaining to a significantly-sized disaster has made me terrified of the zombie apocalypse even more than I already was. How will I know if I need to swing by the gun shop on my way back to Yale?

Optimism...and Blame

I'm going to be optimistic here and say that eventually, Sandy will serve as a unifying force. I am (hoping) that as many towns and cities in the Northeast continue to go without power, communities will come together to aid those that are suffering. But I also think that people are going to get annoyed when their lives do not return to normal in a timely manner (example: transportation in NYC). So my question is this: who are people going to blame? (You know there's going to be someone. There always is.)

Not Just a Once-in-a-Lifetime Storm

I'm expecting to see efforts to deal with damage and return to normalcy, but not enough focus on major structural changes needed to prepare for and prevent this kind of destruction. This storm has been discussed and described as an anomaly, a one-of-a-kind Frankenstorm. But as students of disaster history, we know this is not the case. Connecticut and the rest of the tristate area have experienced hurricanes before (Diane in 1955, Floyd in 1999, and even Irene in 2011) and will likely experience them again--maybe next year or the year after. By looking at this storm as something unusual and unprecedented, we risk failing to use it as an opportunity to prevent this kind of damage. I am sure the flooding and downed power lines will be dealt with and the boardwalks and seaside towns on the Jersey shore will be rebuilt, but will politicians or people in general demand changes that might make the next hurricane we face less of a disaster? Will the Northeast realize that preparedness can be structural, instead of just manifesting itself in people stocking up on bottled water and batteries in the hours leading up to the next storm? Some important voices--like those of Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York--are resisting this dangerous logic. Hopefully their mindset of structural preparedness will create real change.

Commodification of Disaster

A prediction: the commodification of the disaster. It might be tshirts, it might be disaster sites becoming tourist attractions, it might be subcontractors getting the deals on city clean-up, but I'll bet someone will be making money from Sandy. I'm also keeping my eyes peeled for the "anthill effect," and whether that's harmful or helpful. Needless to say, based on what we've learned saying disasters are worse for the poor, I'm not expecting any hurricane-inspired money-making schemes to help those in need. Also, in response to an earlier question that was posed about whether what emerges will be reports of strangers helping each other in a great social-leveling process or reports of disorder, looting, and distrust: the looting reports are already beginning to circulate. See here, for example.