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"Disasters Have Histories": Teaching and Researching American Disasters

by Chad H. Parker, Andy Horowitz, and Liz Skilton

A category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph when it made landfall, Hurricane Harvey dumped over fifty inches of rain on Houston, breaking Texas’ record for annual rainfall in less than a week. Harvey’s unprecedented size forced television news to create new color categories to visually represent the scale of the storm. And reports suggest it could have the greatest economic impact of any storm in American history.1 Just one year earlier, southern Louisiana experienced devastating flooding from an unnamed storm, which the Red Cross called the “worst natural disaster” since Superstorm Sandy.2

 

These sorts of devastating, weather-related disasters have wide-ranging effects. History, it is clear, shapes both the impact of and response to disasters. I recently sat down with Andy Horowitz and Liz Skilton, scholars whose work has focused on disasters, to talk about how history shapes both the impact of and response to disasters, and how they communicate the role of history in moments like these.

 

We often hear the phrase, “there is no such thing as a natural disaster.” What does that mean? How does that idea shape the way you’ve watched the recent storms and floods?

 

Andy Horowitz: The idea, as I construe it, is that disasters have histories. Who is in harm’s way, and the sort of harm they are in the way of, are products of human decisions and social arrangements.

 

To many observers, disasters can seem like they erupt out of nowhere, in a catastrophic instant, but as historians, it’s our job to place them in time and space. So when I approach events like the recent storms, I start by asking: who was in danger? When did they arrive there? Why? Almost by definition, seeing disasters as products of history makes them seem less random and less inevitable.

 

That’s certainly been the case for my own research on Katrina. The hurricane made landfall in 2005, but I begin my book in 1915, because that’s when people started building the houses that ultimately flooded nine decades later. Placing the storm in historical context enables me to show how federal housing policies encouraged people to move to risky places, and how the oil industry’s development in coastal wetlands made those places even more vulnerable. It also enables me to narrate the ideologies that shaped how people experienced and saw Katrina.

 

Liz Skilton: After Hurricane Maria, President Trump asserted that the residents of Puerto Rico had not experienced “a real catastrophe like Katrina.” These comments quickly sparked a national debate over how to define a “real catastrophe,” notably as we wrestled to contextualize a different type of disaster, the Las Vegas Shooting, which had occurred two days before Trump’s comments on Puerto Rico. The two disasters—a hurricane and shooting—brought up questions related to the juxtaposition of different types of disasters and the memory of past experiences with disasters, particularly the one that has fundamentally shaped the twenty-first-century understanding of disaster (Hurricane Katrina). When I teach my American Disasters course, I start by telling my students that historically, we talk about what constitutes a disaster based on three fundamental characteristics. First, we decide whether the disaster was sizable in terms of physical size and impact radius, economic impact in the long and short-term, and loss of human life. Second, we ask whether the disaster was of local, national, or international concern (and whether it meets federal aid standards, such as the FEMA/Stafford Act relief). And third, we determine whether the disaster was considered man-made or “natural.” This last characteristic—man-made or natural—is often the most confusing one for students to grasp once we start to unpack the varieties of meaning. Any disaster could be both man-made and natural, particularly today when anthropogenic influence permeates most situations.

 

Horowitz: On that last point, given what we know about how burning fossil fuels increases the frequency and severity of storms, we ought to teach modern hurricanes, in part, as events in the history of the industrial revolution.

 

How does a historical understanding of the environment, nature, policy, politics, race, gender, class, and ideology shape our reaction to events like Hurricane Harvey? What do you, as scholars and teachers of disaster history, do in the classroom and the community to help students and the public understand these intersections historically?

 

Skilton: The phrase “natural disaster,” has grown in public use over the past century. In my course, I explain how that growth reflects a change in the impression of what constitutes a disaster. One of the tools I use to do this is Google Ngram, which tracks the use of terms in millions of books over time. When we look for “natural disaster” in Google Ngram, we see that it emerges in English-text books around the 1920s and rises in popularity after the 1970s. Part of this has to do with the enactment of federal legislation defining a disaster, and the other part is directly related to cultural changes in the understanding of the environment and human role within it. By the time we get to the 2000s, Americans use the phrase “natural disaster” with ease, but have continued to debate its meaning even more following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Katrina was neither entirely “natural” nor “man-made,” and the complexity of the storm, the recovery, and its continued impact has caused us to reevaluate defining a disaster as one or the other.

 

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria confirm this change in the common understanding of disaster. Media coverage for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma frequently focused on the impact of the anthropogenic decisions in the city of Houston that led to conditions of extreme flooding, or climate and coastal change in Miami. Meanwhile, discussion of Hurricane Maria’s effect on Puerto Rico and federal response to it has reviewed the history of U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean. As historians, I believe this shift in how we understand disaster has affected how we viewed disasters this year. Just the fact that we are connecting disasters to larger anthropogenic influence during a disaster is significant in observing how we consider our role in the natural world. The real testament to impact, however, will be whether it will result in policy revision to disaster legislation or mitigation efforts.

 

Horowitz: It’s our job as historians to help people understand how change happens. I start my disasters class with the idea that “there’s no such thing as a natural disaster,” not because it’s foundational to the field of disaster studies, but because it’s foundational to the study of the history of anything: historians assume that change doesn’t just happen, but is made.

 

History is the antidote to inevitability. If I started my Katrina book at the instant the levees broke, there would be no place in the story to see how things might have been different. But by giving Katrina a history, I can highlight the decisions that put people in danger. Those contingencies reveal how things could have been different in the past. They offer a map to making change in the future. It can be terrifying to recognize how the moments that we refer to as disasters are not cosmic bad luck but rather are products of human history. But it can also be empowering to know that even though the etymology of the word “disaster” refers to stars out of alignment, “The fault…is not in our stars,” as Shakespeare wrote, “But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

 

Liz, you’ve been engaged in an oral history project related to the 2016 floods in southern Louisiana. What have you and your students begun to learn about the interactions between the past and the present?

 

Skilton: This past summer, I worked with a team of undergraduate and graduate students to collect oral history interviews on memories of recent disasters through a series of pop-up events called “History Harvests” in the Acadiana region of Louisiana. The project started because of my desire to measure community response to two different, but back-to-back disasters in the region—the 2015 Grand 16 Theater shooting incident and the 2016 Acadiana floods—and has since expanded.

 

As we did the “Harvests,” my students were surprised, first of all, by how much people’s perception of the significance of a disaster changes with each subsequent disaster.

 

We’ve also found that disaster networks (and the perception of who participates in them) are evolving rapidly with social media influence. This includes the understanding of who should provide aid to a community affected by a disaster, what assistance is expected, and how quickly this aid should be available. It has inspired the creation of community volunteer groups (like the “Cajun Navy”) using social media as their primary communication platform to assist in official federal, state, and local efforts. These community efforts are largely based on past experiences with other disasters that are critical to understanding these new forms of response.

 

When collecting the interviews, my students were amazed at the number of disasters people remembered and the detail of which their memories form perceptions of current disasters. They all agree that while a current disaster might be a central focus of the moment, past disasters play a significant role in affecting how we perceive what is taking place, and thus they are vital to understanding response. Collecting this material now will help us study disasters in the future.

 

 

Andy, you wrote several op-eds while the Harvey and Irma disasters were unfolding to discuss elements of the 1900 Galveston hurricane and Hurricane Katrina. Why? What role do newspaper opinion pages play in teaching disaster history?

 

Horowitz: It’s our civic responsibility as scholars, and an extension of our role as teachers, to share what we know when it might be of use.

 

There were two points I thought I could most usefully make around the hurricanes this fall. The first is that though fears of looting and social disorder are common during floods—often leading to violence, as people seek to protect themselves from the marauding gangs they believe are about to beat down the door—actual looting is rare. I hoped reminding people of this fact might calm anxieties a bit and help prevent misguided, fear-inducing press coverage.

 

The second point I tried to make based on my research was that so much of what we often think of as the disaster is, in fact, a product of policy decisions made afterwards. Who returned to New Orleans after Katrina, for example, cannot be explained by the flood but rather by the prerogatives of recovery programs. In many ways, the defining parts of the events we will come to know as Harvey, Irma, or Maria will occur long after the storm clouds clear. So if you care about the fate of your fellow citizens, your work is far from done just because the floodwater is gone.

 

More broadly, I wanted to argue that we too often gather the challenges posed by rising seas, hurricanes, and the like under the banner of “climate change,” when they are not primarily climatological. The challenges are political and moral. They resemble other problems we’ve faced as a society in the past, and our successes or failures will not be measured in terms of degrees or inches, but in terms of legitimacy and justice.

 

 

What about living in southern Louisiana helps situate your own approach to teaching about these subjects?

 

Horowitz: Well, the fact that parts of the Tulane University campus flooded during Katrina certainly personalizes the “so what” question for my students!

 

In some ways, that means my charge is to help my students move back and forth between the specific and the general. Katrina happened on our campus and in our city, but also in the South, in America, and in the world. Thinking about how to narrate a story or make an argument at those different scales can be a productive challenge.

 

Skilton: When I moved to New Orleans in 2007 to study Katrina, I became part of a generation who migrated to the city post-storm. I documented and participated in the rebirth of the city and a decade later still call it home, even though I now teach at a state university three hours away. Post-Katrina New Orleans fundamentally shaped my scholarship and perspective on the intersection of the environment, policy, politics, race, class, gender, and ideology. I now try to expose my students to this by taking them on field excursions to sites of contested environmental change such as New Orleans, the industrial corridor or “Cancer Alley,” and even the wetlands in kayaks to see oil spill effects. I have tried to pass experiences like this on to my students to encourage them to get out into the field and be on the front lines of public discourse.

 

Do we run a risk of historicizing disasters too quickly? What can we learn from recent events like Hurricane Harvey, when the event is ongoing and our understandings of it are incomplete?

 

Skilton: Every disaster can be compared to one of the past. Understanding how it fits within the context of a region, culture, and history is vital to predicting how a current disaster will impact the population and surrounding environment. The real risk with historicizing disaster is the attempt to claim every disaster as “the worse we have ever seen,” without contextualizing what that means. This language provides no perspective except to warn of impending doom, and even then, creates impressions of a disaster that mislead response, relief efforts, and perceptions of impact, mainly when a subsequent disaster follows.

 

Horowitz: History is always ongoing and our understanding is always incomplete. Calls not to historicize or politicize an event are efforts to evade discussions about culpability and responsibility.

 

I agree that calling each disaster the “worst ever” doesn’t add much to our civic dialogue. Often, the best thing a historian can do is just the opposite: to find precedents that can help us make sense of our current predicaments. The problems we face are not new—you don’t have to get very far in the book of Genesis until you reach the history of a flood, after all. There is a vast warehouse of human experience with disaster, full of successes, failures, and lessons yet to be learned, and historians hold the key.


1. Robinson Meyer, “Hurricane Harvey Is the Rainiest Atlantic Hurricane Ever Measured,” Atlantic, Aug. 29, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/08/hurricane-harvey-is-the-rainiest-atlantic-hurricane-ever-measured/538407/; Doyle Rice, “Harvey to be costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, estimated cost of $190 billion,” USA Today, Aug. 30, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/08/30/harvey-costliest-natural-disaster-u-s-history-estimated-cost-160-billion/615708001/.

2. Emma Brown, Ashley Cusick, and Mark Berman, “Louisiana flooding is the country’s ‘worst natural disaster’ since Hurricane Sandy, Red Cross says,” Washington Post, Aug. 17, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/08/17/louisiana-flood-victims-face-long-road-back-to-normal-i-lost-everything/?utm_term=.a22521045455.