The Chronicle Review

A Natural Disaster, and a Human Tragedy

September 23, 2005

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 upward 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 eastern Africa?

In searching for meaning in the current calamity, we can learn something about the root causes of such disasters by pinpointing the proper historical analogy.

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 Superdome and 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 its 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 postdisaster rebuilding of the Gulf 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 miss 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 have 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 unnatural disasters.

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 massive 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 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. FEMA 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, the 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 levee system."

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.


http://chronicle.com Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 52, Issue 5, Page B11