The Human Nature of Disaster

A storm is never just wind or rain. Our natural problems are social problems. The solutions to them must be social, too.

Seventeen days after Hurricane Katrina breached Louisiana’s flood levees, President George W. Bush delivered an address from Jackson Square, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. “In the aftermath,” Bush said, “we have seen fellow citizens left stunned and uprooted … looking for meaning in a tragedy that seems so blind and random.” Many Americans, New Orleanians and outside observers alike, were not stunned. To them, the devastation that followed the storm, especially for the city’s most vulnerable and marginalized residents, seemed in many ways perfectly predictable.

“Storms, of all sorts, were facts of our lives,” writes Sarah M. Broom in her 2019 memoir, The Yellow House, about growing up in majority-Black and -poor New Orleans East. “Those images shown on the news of fellow citizens drowned, abandoned, and calling for help were not news to us, but still further evidence of what we long ago knew.”1 Five years before Katrina, the historian Ted Steinberg warned that unregulated development on the Gulf Coast, coupled with disinvestment from federal relief programs, had put the city at great risk of flooding. That a disaster like Katrina would strike, and that its impact would fall disproportionately on the residents the city had long neglected, seemed all but inevitable.

Natural disasters are also social disasters. Social decisions—how we design cities, how we invest money, how we distribute resources—help determine where and whom disaster strikes. But disasters are also social in the sense that humans—not God, or nature, or fate—give them meaning and significance. We decide, in the stories we tell about storms, when disasters begin, when they end, and what makes them distinct from apparently nondisastrous events. Too often, these stories sever storms from their contexts—marking them, as Bush’s speech did, as tragic aberrations.

This disjuncture—between disasters’ social origins, on the one hand, and the persistence of popular narratives, like Bush’s, that attribute those disasters to mysterious or nonhuman forces, on the other—is illustrated in three recent books.

Hurricane Katrina, for example, has historical roots that run a century deep. As Andy Horowitz shows in his book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, the devastation caused by the storm resulted in large part from a long cycle of profit seeking and uneven redistribution that began even before the implementation of the neoliberal policies that Steinberg denounced. Those perpetuating such a deadly cycle, Horowitz makes clear, depended on exploiting natural resources and ignoring natural vulnerabilities.

Horowitz disrupts the narrative of disaster as exception. But more often, the stories we tell about storms prevent us from examining the social structures underpinning them. Those stories draw on sources that are both theological, like the Christian beliefs examined in Peter Thuesen’s Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather, and secular, like the mass media explored in Susan Scott Parrish’s The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

When storms challenge our worldviews, these books suggest, we often seek out narratives that reaffirm old orders under threat. If interpreted as tragic aberrations, disasters only facilitate the reestablishment of unequal structures.

But Horowitz, Thuesen, and Parrish all show that by placing storms in their social contexts, we can better understand not only the sources of these natural-social disasters but also the conditions that cause suffering even when skies are calm. Storms, if understood as social, can serve as catalysts for changing the long-standing structures that leave us so vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather.

Rather than narrate Hurricane Katrina as a story that unfolds over days or months, Horowitz places the storm midway through a century of history. A historian at Tulane University, Horowitz casts doubt on the idea that disasters exist apart from the “normal” course of events.

As such, Horowitz’s narrative begins concretely, with a 1915 hurricane that killed hundreds of Louisianans and destroyed millions of dollars in property. The tragic event only inspired New Orleans, declaring itself “storm proof,” to build bigger, faster, and closer to the shore. Over the next several decades, the city would degrade its coastline further through overdevelopment, oil drilling, and flood-control infrastructure that protected property at the expense of land and people. A growing white middle class benefited from the profits of such endeavors, even as local officials disinvested from city services that benefited Black and poor residents.

The relationship between capitalism, racism, and ecological vulnerability has shaped the history of New Orleans, not always in predictable ways. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Horowitz finds, Black homes were not disproportionately flooded during Katrina. Instead, the devastated and majority-Black Lower Ninth Ward was the exception that proved the rule: that federal redlining policies and private real-estate practices more often segregated Black residents into older areas of the city on higher ground. In fact, midcentury government subsidies made new properties built on flood-prone land attractive to the white middle class. It was these properties that suffered the most direct damage when the levees broke.

The paradox of segregated real-estate development reveals one way in which the response to the flood, more than the flood itself, determined Katrina’s racially and socioeconomically disparate impact. In 2006, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced plans to demolish four major New Orleans public-housing projects, though the buildings had suffered relatively minimal flood damage. Locked out of their homes at a time when the city faced record rates of homelessness, some of the project’s former residents established a tent city they called “Survivors Village” outside the shuttered apartments. As of 2011, only around 200 of the 3,077 families who had lived in the projects prior to the storm moved into the apartments eventually built on the old site.

In retelling the story of Katrina as a cycle of profit-driven and government-sanctioned growth and dispossession, Horowitz takes his cue from local residents. After Katrina, some residents of the Lower Ninth believed that federal agents had bombed the levees intentionally. During the 1927 flood, Louisiana’s governor had, in fact, ordered engineers to dynamite the river levee in order to protect urban properties and reassure investors. Though no such deliberate destruction occurred in 2005, the rumor reflected residents’ insistence that the consequences of the disaster were not “blind and random.”

We decide, in the stories we tell about storms, when disasters begin, when they end, and what makes them distinct from apparently nondisastrous events.

The phrase “act of God” is often casually invoked to describe disasters. But religion itself does not necessarily provide a clear framework for explaining natural events. For religious Christians, argues Thuesen in Tornado Gods, storms confound more than affirm theological beliefs.

Thuesen, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, examines how disasters are understood in “Tornado Alley”: a loosely defined region in the central United States, known for both its violent storms and its evangelical Christian communities. Over the course of American history, Thuesen finds, tornadoes have challenged religious Christians’ understandings of providence. Why should a tornado murder a woman, but not her neighbor? Why should it strike down a church, but not the casino on the next block? For the Christians Thuesen studies, the seemingly arbitrary nature of death and destruction during a storm unsettles the notion of a divinely ordered world.

Of course, as we have seen, the destruction of storms is only random to a certain degree. More than one-third of tornado victims between 1981 and 1997 were mobile-home residents, who were disproportionately poor and elderly.2 If arbitrariness challenges the idea of a divinely ordered world, then patterns of social inequality, which become especially visible during disasters, do so even more profoundly.

This epistemic challenge is not limited to the religious. American believers and nonbelievers alike have long made sense of disparate suffering—especially across divides of class and race—by drawing on ideas of sin and virtue.3 The helplessness of storm victims has the potential to disturb the idea that the oppressed bring on their own suffering. For that reason, as the legal scholar Michele Landis Dauber has shown, politicians advocating for New Deal welfare programs compared financial loss during the Great Depression to the hardships brought on by floods and droughts.4

But, as Dauber argues, that potential disruption does not guarantee a permanent shift in understanding. When we see that natural disasters strike without regard to individual sin or virtue, we might discard the idea that the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized ever deserve their suffering. Or, we may simply seek to reassert moral orders that justify both sudden tragedy and structural vulnerability. Thuesen largely focuses on his subjects’ attempts to grapple with death and destruction within their own communities. Unfortunately, he devotes little attention to differences of class or race within Tornado Alley. But his account of Christian evangelicals’ response to Katrina perhaps best illustrates how storms can both challenge and affirm long-held beliefs about social difference.

On the extreme end, televangelists Pat Robertson and John Hagee suggested that Katrina was divine retribution for legalized abortion and homosexuality. (Hagee later retracted his statement.) Other evangelical Christians denounced those remarks, and many traveled to the Gulf Coast to rebuild homes and distribute supplies after the storm. For most, though, the storm neither proved nor permanently falsified the notion that the poor bring on their own hardship. Instead, it seemed to represent an exceptional circumstance that merited an exceptional response. While faith-based relief programs undoubtedly did offer needed help to some New Orleans residents, acts of short-term care left the city’s fundamental inequities in place.

For both the religious and the secular, the uncertainty that storms inspire can prompt a suspension of judgment otherwise too easily meted out. Such a suspension can open the door for sympathy and even temporary action but often closes the door for real change.

If the storms only confound real believers, then why invoke the supernatural to explain natural disasters? In tort law, the concept of an “act of God” absolves parties of legal liability for damages resulting from extreme weather events. As Thuesen points out, the concept makes little sense to a believer, for it seems to equate God with randomness. But the casual invocation of religion in a secular context can serve to mark natural disasters as exceptions—ensuring that they do not threaten the belief systems that storms might otherwise call into question.

Theologically, we cannot know what Bush, himself an evangelical Christian, meant when he described Katrina as a “blind and random tragedy.” But as in their political context, his words seemed to call for the sort of temporary suspension of judgment that allows for short-term acts of charity but not long-term change. For once, he did not evoke the language of “personal responsibility” that his party had so often used to account for structural inequality. But his words also obscured government’s complicity in the suffering of storm victims, as well as government’s responsibility for alleviating that suffering.

Nature was never an entity that existed apart from us, unshaped by us, not affecting us. Our natural problems are social problems.

If disaster seems only to disrupt the older order, and does not invalidate it, then the response is, unsurprisingly, a return to the status quo. In Thuesen’s account, Western settlers in the 19th century interpreted storms not as divine retribution for their acts of conquest but, instead, as divine challenges that, once surpassed, evidenced their worthiness. A secular version of this tendency to read self-confirming narratives into disasters underlies the media narrative that Parrish, an English professor at the University of Michigan, uncovers in The Flood Year 1927.

In that fateful year, heavy rains overwhelmed levees along the Mississippi River’s length from Missouri to the Gulf Coast. Deforestation, meanwhile, intensified the effects of the flood. The disaster left some 637,000 people homeless.

Responding to the disaster, the Red Cross mobilized a “reconstruction machinery,” which consisted of both relief aid and propaganda. Its stated goal was to bring each flood victim back to a position “as near like the position he occupied before disaster.”5 Employing mass-communication strategies pioneered during World War I, the Red Cross also promised, implicitly, to reverse the partial gains of racial progress during an earlier “reconstruction.” Newspaper illustrations depicting the South as a pale damsel in distress represented the “northern army of relief” as the rescuer of a victimized white South.

The romance of this imagined reunion, Parrish shows, both erased and depended on Black evacuees. At first, many Black flood victims were prevented by their planter employers from fleeing; later, they were forced to labor, under conditions that contemporary commentators likened to antebellum slavery, in Red Cross “concentration camps.”

On the surface, the media narratives that surfaced after Katrina seem entirely different from the propaganda of 1927. Far from erasing Black flood victims, Horowitz shows, news coverage made African Americans hypervisible: viewers could easily assume that the flood only affected Black New Orleanians. The news media often represented Black flood victims as criminal, showing scenes of men and women “looting” grocery stores. (When they did show white victims engaged in the same acts of salvage, reporters described them as “finding” food and supplies.) And rather than encourage a return to normalcy, many commentators saw the storm as an opportunity to remake the city “nothing like before,” as David Brooks put it in the New York Times.6 As Horowitz argues, calls to reinvent the city often meant reinventing it without its Black and poor residents, and those calls were realized in policies that made it more difficult for such residents to return.

The disaster fantasy, then, was indeed a fantasy of restoration—as in 1927, it was a restoration of an earlier era, prior to demographic change and (partial) racial integration. As the specter of antebellum slavery shaped the federal response to the flood of 1927, so Jim Crow haunted 2005.

As Parrish argues, however, dominant disaster narratives always produce “counternarratives.” In 1927, Southern environmentalists who called attention to federal watershed mismanagement challenged claims of northern rescue. Meanwhile, African American newspapers reported on the atrocities occurring in Red Cross concentration camps. Artists such as Bessie Smith, whose song “Back-Water Blues” became an anthem for the flood year, told a story of collective displacement that reached audiences across divides of class, race, and geography.

After Katrina, both Parrish and Horowitz observe, artists celebrated the rich cultural history of New Orleans, even as politicians questioned which parts of the city were worth preserving. In 2006, the artist Kara Walker’s exhibit After the Deluge combined selections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 18th- and 19th-century collections with Walker’s signature black cut-paper silhouettes. Paintings such as J. M. W. Turner’s The Slave Ship and John Warner Barber’s engravings of the Amistad uprising told a new history of Katrina, which began with the waterlogged horrors of the Middle Passage. Walker’s own contributions, many of which referenced scenes of slavery along the Mississippi River, all predated Katrina.

Walker’s work did not represent Katrina, art critic Roberta Smith noted, so much as it “warned of the pathologies that Katrina unleashed.” Mixing images from history, religion, and myth, After the Deluge defied the linear chronology that its title implied. The exhibit suggested, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, that the state of disaster is not the exception, but the rule.


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Such counternarratives seem more important than ever in this year of so-called “crisis.” On the right, many continue to absolve themselves of responsibility for environmental and health catastrophes by invoking mysterious outside forces: antifa starting wildfires, Chinese virus labs unleashing pandemics, the nonexistent Green New Deal causing major power outages.

But the problem isn’t just conspiracy theorists. Those who imagine that we can restore ecological health solely through technological innovation or by “rewilding” human-altered environments also imagine climate crisis as an external imposition, one that we can overcome by restoring the harmony of a bygone era. Calls for a return to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic similarly ignore the endemic social problems that have made it so deadly.

A storm is never just wind or rain. Nature was never an entity that existed apart from us, unshaped by us, not affecting us. Our natural problems are social problems. The solutions to them must be social, too.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House (Grove, 2019), p. 233.
  2. Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 74.
  3. See Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  4. Michele Landis Dauber, The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  5. Quoted in Susan Scott Parrish, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History (Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 42.
  6. Quoted in Andy Horowitz, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015 (Harvard University Press, 2020), p. 135.
Featured-image photograph by Michael D / Unsplash