|Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, September 9, 2005
Opinion: A Natural Disaster, a Man-Made Catastrophe, and a Human Tragedy
By TED STEINBERG
Is Hurricane Katrina "our tsunami," as the mayor of Biloxi, Miss., A.J.
Holloway, has said? Does it make sense to compare today's disaster to a
catastrophe that killed upwards of 200,000 impoverished people, injured
roughly half a million, displaced millions more, and was felt across a huge
geographic span that included Sumatra, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and
In searching for meaning in the current calamity, we can learn something
about the root causes of such disasters by pinpointing the proper
Although it is no doubt an overstatement to compare Katrina to the 2004
tsunami, the two have some things in common. Both demonstrated the
vulnerability of the poor in the face of natural calamity. Consider
Katrina's victims who suffered through the aftermath at the Louisiana
Superdome and the New Orleans convention center. That was a man-made
disaster that clearly could have been averted if the federal government,
specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had quickly marshaled
the political will and resources to evacuate those without access to cars,
instead of promoting on its Web site a faith-based charity that was clearly
no match for the problem.
Likewise, both disasters demonstrated the tragic consequences of reckless
coastal development. In Asia, industrial fish farms, tourist resorts, and
refineries combined over the last generation to destroy huge stretches of
coastal mangrove forest. The forest helps stabilize the land, and offers a
form of natural protection that can soften the blow of a tsunami.
Bangladesh experienced many fewer deaths in the disaster because of the
conservation of the coastal mangroves than did Indonesia, where two-thirds
of the forest has been destroyed.
In New Orleans, meanwhile, the dredging of channels to accommodate
petrochemical companies has compromised huge amounts of marshland. Such
changes, combined with the erosion of the area's barrier islands, and the
Bush administration's policy of opening up more wetlands to development,
weakened the natural frontline defense against a hurricane storm surge and
left the city more vulnerable to death and destruction.
Both disasters also show the problems with neoliberal imperatives, based in
a theory of political economy that idealizes the free market and chips away
at the public sector at home, while worshiping at the altar of free trade
and investment abroad. Foreign capital, whether in the form of tourism or
the cash-cropping of fish, played a role in opening the coast around the
Indian Ocean to the destructive force of the tsunami. In the aftermath of
the disaster, the World Bank is leading the effort to expand the reach of
those very same enterprises at the expense of the poor. The poor suffered
the most in the calamity, and they are now experiencing the brutalizing
effects of what the activist journalist Naomi Klein has rightly termed
"disaster capitalism," as foreign corporations seek to profit from the
reconstruction while the residents of the fishing villages that formerly
occupied the area are being forced to relocate. In June 2005, Oxfam found
that, because the flow of aid has tended to go to business people and
landowners, many of the poor have been made even poorer by the disaster.
What form the post-disaster rebuilding of America's Gulf Coast region will
take remains to be seen. But this much is clear: Those poor people who had
to suffer through the stench, the heat, and the overflowing toilets were
victims of a way of thinking that goes back 25 years. Neoliberalism is a
philosophy that has been shared by Republicans and Democrats alike (which
is, by the way, why I'm not entirely convinced by those who argue that this
kind of mistreatment would not have happened under a Kerry administration),
and it was the root cause behind the failed evacuation. It is an ethos that
deludes its adherents into thinking that "a thousand points of light" are
better at solving America's problems than the federal government. It is a
worldview that would rather put its faith in volunteer efforts than pony up
the money and resources to safely evacuate the roughly 120,000 people in
New Orleans who, we knew in advance, had no access to cars.
When it comes to hurricane evacuation, American officials ought to take a
page out of Fidel Castro's handbook. The American news media never misses
an opportunity to poke fun at the Communists. I would not want to defend
all of Castro's policies, but whatever their faults, the Communists in Cuba
have figured out how to use government resources to organize an efficient
civil-defense system for protecting their people -- staging exercises to
practice evacuation, providing shelters in advance with medical personnel,
and even bringing in trucks before a storm so people can save their
material possessions. It hardly needs mentioning that being alive is one of
the prerequisites for enjoying the freedom that Americans value so much.
So there is a great deal that the tsunami and the present hurricane share
in common. But a much better historical comparison exists closer to home,
one that highlights the irresponsible decision making and denial on the
part of government officials that, combined with profit-driven land
development, largely explains why the poor pay with their lives in such
disasters. I have in mind the 1928 hurricane that took the lives of at
least 1,836 people in Florida, the vast majority of them poor migrant
workers who drowned as the waters of Lake Okeechobee rose up over a dike
and pounded them to death.
* * *
That disaster is comparable to what is happening in the wake of Hurricane
Katrina not just because the victims in both cases are overwhelmingly poor
and African-American. They compare because, in both cases, there were clear
signs, in advance, that they were disasters waiting to happen -- literally,
In the case of the 1928 Florida hurricane, the warning was telegraphed
several years in advance. Earlier in the century, state authorities had
overseen a vast drainage project that reclaimed land around the shores of
Lake Okeechobee and turned it into valuable agricultural enterprises. Yet
living around the lake had its price. In 1922 heavy rains caused the water
to rise more than four feet and flooded Clewiston and Moore Haven, towns
along the lake's southern shore that housed the black laborers who worked
the rich agricultural land nearby.
In 1924 storms again raised the lake level, causing more flooding. Then, in
the summer of 1926, heavy rains raised the level of the lake yet again,
leading a journalist named Howard Sharp to beg state officials to take
steps to lower the water: "The lake is truly at a level so high as to make
a perilous situation in the event of a storm," he wrote in The Tampa Tribune.
The Everglades Drainage District, headed by some of the highest officials
in the state, including Gov. John W. Martin and Attorney General J.B.
Johnson, took no action to lower the water. By September 1, the level of
Lake Okeechobee exceeded 18 feet. The levees around the lake were built to
only 21 feet, and anyone even remotely familiar with the area knew that a
stiff wind could cause the lake to rise as much as three feet. The
mathematics of fatality and destruction were painfully obvious. Yet the
drainage commissioners, beholden to wealthy agricultural and commercial
interests -- who wanted the lake water high to help with irrigating crops
and with navigation -- refused to act.
Nobody listened, and on September 18, 1926, a Category 4 storm ripped
across Florida and caused the waters of Lake Okeechobee to wash over a dike
and kill at least 150 people (though 300 seems more likely) in Moore Haven,
which had an entire population of only 1,200 at the time.
After the disaster, the attorney general explained: "The storm caused the
loss and damage. ... It is not humanly possible to guard against the
unknown and against the forces of nature when loosed." Interpreting the
event as a "natural" disaster masked the calamity's man-made causes and
scarcely moved anyone to action to help ward off a future catastrophe,
which, it turned out, was just around the corner.
On September 16, 1928, a powerful storm, with a barometric low of 27.43
inches -- even lower than that recorded in 1926 -- swept ashore near Palm
Beach. After the notorious 1900 Galveston hurricane (which left at least
8,000 dead), it was the deadliest storm in 20th-century American history.
Most of those who died were black migrant workers, virtually all of whom
drowned in the towns along the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, as the
howling winds sent a wall of water crashing over the dikes in a grim
repetition of what had happened two years before.
Sightseers, brimming with morbid curiosity, filed into the region to see
the mounds of swollen, rotting corpses firsthand. According to one report,
"The visitor would stare for moments entranced, then invariably turn aside
to vomit." Bodies were still being found more than a month after the
disaster, when searching ceased for lack of funds.
Again, Sharp seemed remarkably prescient, writing a week before the storm
that those who advocated a high water level in Lake Okeechobee were taking
"a terrible responsibility on themselves." And again, a member of the
Everglades drainage commission -- this time Ernest Amos, the state
comptroller -- called the disaster an "act of God," in what is surely one
of history's more irresponsible outbursts of denial.
After Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, President Bush, sounding
much like state officials in Florida in the 1920s, said: "I don't think
anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." Seeing the calamity as
primarily the work of unforeseen and unpredictable forces, however, amounts
to a form of moral hand-washing.
In fact, multiple warnings had gone out. The Federal Emergency Management
Agency has known about the potential for large loss of life in New Orleans,
probably for a generation. Ten years ago, Weatherwise magazine called New
Orleans "the Death Valley of the Gulf Coast" because the city is surrounded
by water and not particularly well served by major roadways. In 2000, in
talking about the general decline in death rates from natural disasters in
the 20th century, I called attention in my book Acts of God to New Orleans
and wrote, "Think twice before assuming that high death tolls are a thing
of the past." Mark Fischetti, a contributing editor to Scientific American,
made the same prediction in an excellent report in the magazine in 2001.
The journalists John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein reported extensively in
2002 on the potential for calamity in The Times-Picayune. And as recently
as May 2005, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, was
quoted as saying, "I can't emphasize enough how concerned I am with
southeast Louisiana because of its unique characteristics, its complex
Is the current disaster the American tsunami? No, it's the Hurricane
Katrina calamity. But the same blind faith in the free market and private
enterprise, coupled with the brutal downsizing of the public sector, and a
very explicit pattern of denial in the face of impending natural calamity,
help explain why America's most vulnerable saw their lives washed out to sea.
Ted Steinberg is a professor of history and law at Case Western Reserve
University. Among his books are Acts of God: The Unnatural History of
Natural Disaster in America (Oxford University Press, 2000), Down to Earth:
Nature's Role in American History (Oxford University Press, 2002), and the
forthcoming American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, to be
published by W.W. Norton & Company in March.