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British Association for American Studies


Issue 10, Spring 2007: Article 3


Issue 10, Spring 2007: Article 3

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 10, Spring 2007

Natural Disasters in America: The Northridge Earthquake (1994), Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the Relationships between Human Societies and the ‘Natural Environment’

Clare Russell
© Clare Russell. All Rights Reserved

On September 10th 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush delivered a speech comparing the devastation in New Orleans to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. Whereas the terrorist attacks were the consequence of ‘the malice of evil men’, the disaster in New Orleans was the result of ‘the fury of water and wind’. [1] The speech blamed the natural environment alone for the social and ecological catastrophe in New Orleans. Furthermore, the speech referred to Americans’ ‘resolve’ to ‘overcome this ordeal’ and become ‘stronger for it’. [2] This is reminiscent of responses to natural disasters throughout U.S. history. For example, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, George Harvey, editor of Harpers Weekly, wrote that the ‘city was certain to arise quickly from the ashes, greater and more beautiful than ever’. [3] Similarly, William Cronon argues that many American environmental historians ‘tell a story of more or less linear progress, in which people struggle to transform a relatively responsive environment.’ Some historians may regard natural disasters as a ‘setback’ that human societies overcome before they continue their ‘linear’ progression, others may view them as a portent of increasing devastation, due to societies’ inappropriate interventions in the natural environment. [4] This essay will argue that the terms ‘society’ and ‘nature’ should not be conceived as separate entities. Rather, it will argue human systems develop networks of interdependencies among and between social units and organizations, and physical features and settings and construct social ecologies that guarantee their own survival. Patterns of belief, which shape human perceptions of the natural world, affect these networks. These networks create ‘natural’ disasters and affect the way that societies respond to them. Recovery depends on social and physical features, such as the number of community-based organizations (CBOs) available to deal with disaster or patterns of vulnerability within the system. It also depends on how people’s values and beliefs shape the way they perceive nature, and how they view their own capacity to recover.

Scholars have stressed the way that both landscapes and human societies have developed from relationships between physical and biological features, social groups and social forces into socio-ecological systems. [5] For example, Jared Orsi, in his study of flooding in Southern California, argues that water (and this can be extended to another feature of ‘nature’ such as wind or wildlife) moves through an ‘urban ecosystem’, consisting of the ‘political, social, economic and physical features of the city’ combined with ‘climate, geology, biology and topography’. [6] The ways that water flows is determined by the combination of features in society and the environment, such as industry and household needs, rainfall patterns, and engineering. In Los Angeles, Orsi claims, the urban ecosystem’s features have ‘directed the flow of water along unpredictable and occasionally destructive paths’. [7] According to this theory, natural disasters are not attacks from ‘outside’. Instead, the relationships between the constituent parts of an ‘urban ecosystem’ create them. Frederick Bates and Carlo Pelanda conceive of human societies’ relationships with the natural environment an ‘ecological field’ that has developed as human societies adapt to reduce their vulnerability to social and environmental threats. Ecological fields consist of a network of interdependent social units operating in certain ways, a similar network of ‘biotic systems’ such as animals and plants, a ‘store of physical resources’ and a ‘set of physical conditions’. [8] Fields are developed as human individuals and social units evolve to find ways to assure their basic needs (physical resources such as food and water, protection from physical forces like shelter from physical processes like wind and rainfall or social needs like company and community). By securing certain short-term security, however, ecological fields may develop long run vulnerability. [9] Social and ecological interdependencies extend beyond individual towns and cities, as physical conditions and social units, are dependent on features throughout the country, and around the world. [10]

Different units in an ecological field may be more vulnerable to natural disasters than others are. [11] Robert Bolin and Lois Stanford define ‘vulnerability’ as peoples’ inability to ‘avoid, cope with and recover from disasters’. [12] They argue that vulnerable people have an ‘unequal exposure risk’ and ‘unequal access to resources’ that would help them to cope if they were exposed to a disaster. Risks and resources include location (for example, whether people live in a fault zone or by a riverfront), ‘economic resources’ (like income, savings and property), ‘social support’ (such as family and friends, social care or non-profit humanitarian agencies) and health (in the United States, access to health insurance is particularly relevant). [13] Researchers have shown that certain racial and ethnic groups, lower socio-economic classes, female-headed households and elderly people tend to have greater exposure to risks, reduced access to resources and are therefore vulnerable to disasters. [14] In the United States (unlike in developing countries) there is a weak correlation between class, race, and locations that expose people to risks, although poor people may live in less safe structures, including mobile homes. [15] However, poor people and people of colour may have limited access to social support, economic resources and health and social care. Although the U.S. is a rich country, the economic and social forces that distribute its resources do so unevenly. [16] Historically, this has meant that certain demographic groups lack the resources that help them to develop resilience to disasters.

Beliefs and values are also important forces in socio-ecological networks. They shape the nature of interdependencies between social and physical units, and the ways that these interdependencies change following a natural disaster. Scholars have emphasized that humans perceived and interpreted nature in different ways and in different times and places. While during the Enlightenment period, Western European intellectuals believed that a person’s ’emancipation’ depended on their ability to dominate nature, Eastern religious teachings such as Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism, teach that all life is connected and that humans should not work against natural processes and organisms. [17] Nature is ‘constructed’ via works of art and literature, but also by the way that apparently ‘natural’ landscapes, such as national parks are presented to and interpreted by, social groups. [18] People may construct myths about nature in a way that creates or reinforces national identity. For example, Frederick Jackson Turner saw the ‘frontier’ as a ‘testing ground’ for immigrants to acquire values and skills that made them truly American. [19] Furthermore, residents of a city or state think about their immediate natural environment in specific ways. For example, William Alexander McClung gives two examples of the ‘myths’ shaping the built environment and landscape architecture in, as well as literary and artistic interpretations of, Los Angeles. These are ‘Arcadia’, a natural paradise, or the opposite, ‘Utopia’, which ‘treats the landscape as raw material to be shaped for human purposes’. [20] Societies cannot ‘socially construct’ the tectonic plate movement that creates an earthquake or heavy rainfall, although they do make interventions that exacerbate natural disasters and expose groups and individuals to hazards, as is argued below. [21] However, people can shape the way that they and others think about such an event. For example, an entrepreneur seeking to attract labour and capital to recover profits following a disaster may promote it as a minor obstacle that humans can overcome. [22] In turn, this reinforces the interdependencies between business organizations and physical features and resources. Ironically, these narratives about disasters have socially constructed disasters to be solely ‘natural event’, blaming ‘nature’ for deaths and devastation and undermining human responsibility. [23] Beliefs, however, may vary throughout the ecological field, as social groups view nature in different ways.

Both sets of literature raise important questions to consider when discussing the environmental histories of New Orleans and Los Angeles and both cities’ reactions to natural disasters. How has each community’s values, hopes and anxieties affected their relationship to the natural environment? How do natural disasters change these culturally constructed sets of relationships and how do people’s values affect the way that they interpret disasters? How have social units’ interactions with physical features changed features in the ‘urban ecosystem’ or ‘ecological field’? Have these features made natural disasters more common, frequent or intense? How have relationships between different social units affected one or more groups’ vulnerability to disasters?

On April 15, 1927, New Orleans’ streets filled with water. This was an example of a natural catastrophe constructed through a series of processes in the ‘urban ecosystem’. After months of heavy rainfall (a physical process), the water level of the Mississippi River began to rise. [24] New Orleans’ engineers (a social ‘group’ influenced by prominent individuals and by scientific discovery and dependent on state and federal government for funding) had over many years, constructed high levees on the riverbank to protect the city from floods. [25] Levees were, by 1927, a long established part of New Orleans’ landscape. The Orleans Levee Board had even planted grass along the levee so it looked like a ‘natural’ physical feature. However, levees affected the river and its surroundings in several ways. For millennia, the Mississippi River has deposited sediment near its banks, creating a ‘natural’ levee, which ‘leaves land sloping down away from its stream’. It is difficult to describe this as a ‘natural’ process, as human and non-human activity (such as clearing trees for agriculture) along the Mississippi River has channelled water in the river and caused erosion that increases levels of sediment deposits.[26] By building the levee higher, engineers raised the river higher above New Orleans, which has meant that, in the event of levees breaking, water will flow downhill more rapidly into the city. [27] Levees also imbued a misplaced sense of security among New Orleans residents. Although they are designed to protect cities, they can fail. Furthermore, when a city below sea level is flooded, it is difficult to remove the water. [28] New Orleans had invented a drainage system that pumped water away from the city, however the 1927 storms damaged the city’s central power system and without electricity (another force or ‘feature’ in an urban ecosystem,) the pumps stopped working. [29]

Ari Kelman, in A River and It’s City argues that, after this event, residents, investors and business leaders no longer felt secure about their natural environment. Alarmed at the impact of insecurity on New Orleans economy, the Citizens’ Flood Relief Committee (an unelected body set up in 1927 to tackle potential flooding) advocated dynamiting the levee twelve miles downstream from New Orleans. It hoped that this would reduce the rivers’ pressure along New Orleans’ waterfront levee. After a series of debates at local and federal level, the state governor acceded to this plan. The subsequent flooding in the ‘River Parishes’ outside New Orleans affected several social units: the residents of flooded parishes evacuated from their homes, as well as farmers and fur trappers whose livelihoods were destroyed by this flooding. [30]

The 1927 floods illustrate how a series of physical processes (rainfall and water flows), man-made processes and features (electricity and levees), economic pressures, social units (such as engineers and local and federal governing bodies), and politics interacted to create a ‘natural’ disaster. It also highlights some of the historical problems that characterized New Orleans ‘urban ecosystem’. Since 1927, after the floods exposed the fact that levees alone could not protect cities, engineers intervened by building overflows in the Mississippi to reduce water levels and pressure. These interventions have disrupted the river’s processes of erosion and deposition. This process is eroding Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and as this happens, the coast loses its ability to trap sediments. This accelerates the land-loss process. As the coastlines are worn away, cities like New Orleans lose ‘buffers’ against hurricanes from the Gulf. [31] Furthermore, global climate changes (which, according to most scientists, are caused by human activity that increases levels of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere) may exacerbate hurricanes’ severity. One journalist cited a study in Science. which found that although the annual number of hurricanes classified as one, two and three fell over the past 35 years, storms classes as 4 or 5 have nearly doubled. He argued that rising sea temperatures and warmer water vapour may have increased Hurricane Katrina’s intensity as it moved west from Florida over the Gulf to Louisiana and Mississippi. [32] These are both examples of the ways that changes in the environment in Louisiana, the United States, and internationally, may have exacerbated Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans.

However, structures in New Orleans’ ‘urban ecosystem’ made the hazard even more of a catastrophe. On August 30th, the ‘storm’s eye veered away from New Orleans’. This limited the hurricane’s direct impact on the city. However, broken levees allowed water to flood New Orleans’ Lower ninth Ward. [33] Moreover, groups of residents responded to the disaster by looting stores and threatening violence, creating social upheaval alongside a natural disaster. [34] Furthermore, conditions in New Orleans’ Superdome (which was used to shelter refugees before they were moved to the Houston Astrodome on September 1) exacerbated victims’ experiences. The hurricane affected a number of processes in New Orleans ecosystem- such as electricity and running water, which meant that the Superdome had no air-conditioning and poor sanitation. [35] The federal government’s delayed response also exacerbated the disaster, as discussed below.

Similarly, the history of interactions within Los Angeles’ and the United States’ ecological system contributed to the Northridge Earthquake Disaster in 1994. Although human activity did not cause the tectonic plate movements, interventions between social groups and physical processes combined to create large-scale urbanization and human settlement in an ‘at risk’ Los Angeles area. [36] In the mid nineteenth century, Los Angeles remained an ‘agrarian backwater’, constrained by an insufficient water system. However the region, with abundant land and resources, attracted the interests of capitalist investors from 1860. From 1900, ‘powerful ruling elite(s)’ laid the groundwork to make L.A. the ‘premier urban center of the West Coast’. [37] For this, they needed to bring water into the city, and by 1913, the Los Angeles aqueduct was completed. Between the 1930s and 1970s, there were a series of Federal government funded water development projects in the Western states. This included the 200-metre concrete dam, built on the Colorado River near Las Vegas, which generated electricity and provided irrigation for Southwestern states. [38] This development shows the way that political and economic interests encouraged a series of engineering efforts that created a physical system of water provision that enabled vast urban growth in Los Angeles. Boyle Workman, a real estate developer, wrote in 1935, ‘Every tree, every lawn every blade of grass in this section as it exists today, is a forced growth, made possible by man’s ingenuity in bringing water to what would otherwise be a treeless waste’. [39] When an earthquake hit the region in 1973, over 3 million residents were dispersed across the L.A. suburbs, linked to distant water systems. [40] ‘Man’s ingenuity’ in developing water systems that allowed for urban development also brought millions of citizens to an earthquake zone and ‘deliberately put them in harm’s way’. [41]

Socio-ecological systems in New Orleans and Los Angeles also contain economic and social forces that increase certain social groups’ vulnerability to disasters. First, some New Orleans residents were better able to escape impending floods before August 30th. Two residents who had escaped the city argued in The Atlanta Journal, ‘Mandatory evacuation of New Orleans meant that if you had the means, you got out. If you didn’t, you stayed’. People left behind may not have been able to leave their jobs and lose hours of pay; they may not have owned cars; been able to afford temporary accommodation or they may have lacked networks of family and friends who could offer them somewhere to stay. [42] Poverty (often linked to race) therefore, placed New Orleans residents at differential risk in August 2005. Elderly residents were particularly vulnerable, as they had mobility problems preventing them from escaping flooding. Of Hurricane Katrina’s 1050 fatalities, 60% were aged 61 or older. This was partly due to failures in care-giving social units, and one nursing home was charged with 34 cases of negligent homicide, when it failed to evacuate its elderly residents. [43] Furthermore, in the Lower 9th Ward, which became an ‘icon for the city’s ruin’ after it was flooded by broken levees, 97% of the population was African American and the mean per capita income was $10,300 (less than half the United States average of $21,587). [44] Despite reconstruction funding, their poverty may make it difficult for them to rebuild their homes, businesses and lives in years after the disaster. These examples reveal that as well as the flood control policies that contributed to the broken levees, the devastation in New Orleans was the consequence of structural problems of poverty, racial discrimination and insufficient social care, which left people vulnerable to disaster.

In Los Angeles, furthermore, social and economic forces have created vulnerabilities within the ecological system. The city was a major source of steel and tyre manufacturing, and both industries boomed during World War II. The city attracted large numbers of migrants, for example 600 000 African Americans moved to LA from the southern States between 1942 and 1965. This developed a large working class black and white social group. [45] However, in the second half of the twentieth century, these industries and the industrialized working class was in decline. Jobs in the new electronics and apparel industries are often poorly paid and part time. [46] Furthermore, the number of Latin Americans in the city grew after immigrants moved to the city, attracted by available unskilled jobs. However, they are poorly paid, often live in threat of deportation, lack political representation and are not always proficient English language speakers. Large-scale immigration has also ‘put a severe strain on the availability of low cost housing.’ [47] This has implications for natural disasters. For example, often more than one family lives in an apartment, which complicates disaster authorities’ compensation efforts. [48] In both the Los Angeles and the New Orleans ecological fields, therefore, environment, society and economics have combined to create large sections of vulnerable social groups, who suffered disproportionately during ‘natural’ disasters.

The essay has so far argued relationships between different physical and social features in socio-ecological systems, including the belief patterns of social groups, create ‘natural’ disasters. It will now discuss the ways that these relationships affected responses to, and recovery from, disaster. Kevin Rozario argues that the ‘narrative imagination’ has historically helped Americans to see disasters as minor obstacles on societies’ progression, and in turn, this has ‘contributed greatly to this nation’s renowned resilience’. [49] For example, following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (which until the 2001 terrorist attacks caused the most devastating property destruction in the history of American catastrophes) the city was rebuilt in four years. [50] He argues that this was partly due to the capital, resources and labour that rebuilt the city, but also to the ‘cultural expectations that shaped the ways that the calamities were seen and interpreted’. [51] Because social units believed that they could rebuild and improve the city, they invested resources into the city that helped it to recover. Furthermore, he claims that narratives help people to make sense of events, reassuring them that disasters are not a random, unfair ‘event’ but a stage in their socio-ecological systems development. [52] Similarly, on September 16th 2005, President Bush promised that the ‘great city’ of New Orleans ‘would rise again’. He backed his optimism with ‘one of the largest reconstruction projects the world has ever seen’. [53] Congress had already approved $10.5 billion for emergency hurricane relief, while FEMA delivered $20 million on 18 November. [54] However, US citizens (especially in New Orleans) will not share his optimism unless the government matches it with adequate federal spending and a consistent commitment to the city in future years, particularly given widespread criticism of its initial response. [55] Furthermore, on November 4th, New Orleans’ mayor, Ray Nagin stated that eighty percent of New Orleans electrical services, sixty per cent of gas services, all water and sewerage functions in ‘targeted areas’ had been restored, the levee system had been repaired and some schools had opened. ‘The private sector is ready to invest in New Orleans’, he stated. [56] By reassuring corporate units that most of the city’s functions had resumed, he implied that New Orleans socio-ecological system was once again suitable for business activity.

While ‘recovery narratives’ in 1906′ promised that the new San Francisco would be ‘greater’ and ‘more beautiful [57]; in 2005 narratives also expressed hopes for improving New Orleans. However, many of these argued that the reconstructed city should change the social and ecological features and relationships that helped create the disaster and exacerbated its social consequences. For example, Silas Lee, a sociologist and pollster, stated that for decades, residents had seen New Orleans as a ‘broken city’. Reconstruction should create ‘a more diverse economy, stronger schools (and) better infrastructure’. [58] Furthermore, at times ‘recovery narratives’ doubted that New Orleans could recover its unique ‘character’. According to Barbara Major, a New Orleans community activist, ‘the flavour of the people… made the city. And if they don’t come back, then New Orleans won’t come back’. [59] Such comments do not just signal nostalgia for the city’s past, they show concern that an ‘improved’ New Orleans should include all of its former social groups, and its recovered social systems should reduce their vulnerability.

However, responses to recent disasters have followed another trend: prediction of impending catastrophe. Following a storm in 1995, which followed a series of disaster events including Northridge, an article in the Los Angeles Times claimed, ‘there is no question that we are caught in the middle of something strange’. [60] Such narratives again frame disasters as a sign that something worse is to come. These views are facilitated by the fact that large natural disasters do seem to follow a pattern and frequently systems experience a series of disasters in short periods. While the Northridge earthquake followed a series of Californian disasters, Hurricane Katrina happened only months after a devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia and earthquake in Pakistan. Mike Davis explains that the fact that climatologists and statisticians use the terms ’50-year storm’ or ‘100-year flood’ misleadingly implies that large disasters should happen once in a lifetime, although they only refer to the intensity of the event. [61] The fact that the disasters often occur in short succession induces a tendency to view disasters as part of a larger catastrophe.

Following the Northridge earthquake, scientists embarked on what Davis suggests was one of the ‘most intense public research effort(s)’ in modern American history. Debating the exact origin of the thrust fault that ‘nucleated almost 11 miles under Northridge’, scientists suggested that earthquake activity in the Los Angeles basin was potentially more dangerous than Southern California’s history suggested. [62] James Dolan, from the Caltech Seismology lab claimed, ‘Los Angeles appears to have been settled in a quiet period in terms of earthquakes, and that can’t last forever. At some point we’re going to have to relieve all the strain that’s built up over that period’. [63] According to Dolan, Los Angeles had built up a ‘seismological debt’ that would eventually be paid with either a ‘deadly swarm of Northridge-size quakes’ or a ‘single monster event’, about M 7.2 or M 7.6. [64] Furthermore, a report for the Southern California Earthquake Centre predicted that there was ‘an 80% or 90% probability of an M7 or greater earthquake somewhere in Southern California before 2024’. [65] Furthermore, geophysicists at UCLA found evidence that large quakes on the faults under the LA basin usually follow a series of intermediate events like the Northridge quake. [66] Every earthquake on Northridge’s scale reinforces the belief that California is on the verge of an unprecedented destructive disaster. Scientific research and discoveries reinforce this belief. Californians are increasingly afraid that physical features (i.e. earthquake faults) will overwhelm Los Angeles’ social units and built environment. [67] Similarly, commentators have noted that southern states are at risk from similarly devastating hurricanes in future years. Peter King, in an article in The Seattle Times claimed that a significant question affecting New Orleans’ reconstruction was how much low-lying land should be rebuilt, given the risks of flooding. [68] People might also be afraid to return if convinced that the region will see a series of catastrophes. However, other commentators are concerned that if people do not return, the rebuilt city would lose much of its charm and character. [69]

In 1906, people rebuilt San Francisco because they believed that it could be ‘greater’ and ‘more beautiful’ than before. In 1994 and 2005, ‘catastrophic’ belief systems were more common in the United States. No longer convinced that cities could be rebuilt, many people feared that natural disasters signalled a far worse environmental catastrophe and therefore were no longer prepared to return to socio-ecological systems where they would be ‘at risk’. This will hinder the ‘optimistic’ visions of New Orleans outlined above.

As well as belief systems, units and forces in socio-ecological fields shape responses to disasters. Following the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, the Clinton administration spent $13 billion dollars on relief, 90% of reconstruction costs. It suspended an amendment in the 1974 Disaster Relief Act, which required local and state governments to pay 25% of these costs. [70] Federal funding was distributed through several agencies, such as the Small Business Administration (SBA), which grants loans to individuals to pay for reconstruction and the Housing and Urban Development agency (HUD), which supplies rental and reconstruction assistance. Furthermore, Los Angeles benefited from networks of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs), such as Habitat for Humanity, the Christian Reform World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and ‘Rebuild: Hand to Hand’ or Mano a Mano (a coalition of local churches, businesses and civic organizations) which aimed to address needs that were ‘unmet’ by state and federal authorities. [71] Political motivations arguably shaped the Clinton administration’s relief efforts. In the 1996 election, Clinton ‘turned his 1992 margin in California into a landslide’. [72] However, relief agencies reinforced patterns of vulnerability, despite efforts to the contrary. Mexican immigrants, for example, were reluctant to pursue disaster assistance, because of linguistic and cultural barriers. Most lacked experience with the US relief system and its bureaucracy. Some may have expected a response closer to that of the 1985 Mexican earthquake, where relief was not nearly so generous. Other residents, even those in the United States legally, were afraid of deportation. As for illegal immigrants, as one interviewed resident testified, ‘the undocumented who don’t have papers, they didn’t even apply’. [73] While it appears that existing social units and networks helped the city recover, this does not necessarily imply a ‘return to normalcy’, as Bolin and Stanford explain. For example, the city of Los Angeles produced agendas to increase availability of low cost, seismically secure housing. This fell short of attacking the social and political ‘root causes’ of vulnerability. [74]

In New Orleans, the scale of the disaster meant that features of the socio-ecological system were overwhelmed when the hurricane hit. For example, police services were unable to exert law and order, largely because forces were employed saving lives, rather than in ‘guarding the city’ [75] and the city’s socio-ecological system was unable to supply food, water and electricity. New Orleans was dependent on its relationship with outside forces, namely FEMA. The agency’s slow response contributed to the social crises in the hurricane’s aftermath, and earned the government much criticism. [76] Although some social units, such as schools, have re-opened, the city is still dependent on FEMA workers. [77] It is too soon to evaluate long-term relief efforts, although one striking development is that increasing numbers of Latinos have come to the city to work in the reconstruction effort. These workers are often vulnerable because they contractors abandon them without transport or shelter, and employers pay them poorly or not at all. [78]

The essay has conceptualized the relationships between societies and their environments as a system of networks of social units and organizations interacting with different physical, biological, social and economic forces and features, values and patterns of belief. Although President Bush’s speech compared Hurricane Katrina to an attack from outside, socio-ecological systems created disasters through settling in disaster zones, controlling river flows and developing socio-economic systems that rendered some social units more vulnerable than others. Features in the socio-economic system, from the presence of NGOs, to patterns of federal relief efforts to the narratives that frame disaster events in historical processes shape the ways that systems can recover, and even solve some of its problems. Both disasters have shown that Los Angeles and New Orleans are integrated into socio-ecological systems throughout the United States and across the world. This can determine the ways that rivers flow, the air and sea temperature and the ways that relief efforts operate.

University of Nottingham


[1] ‘Bush pleads for Spirit of 9/11’, Saturday September 10 2005, available at URL [Accessed on 2/12/2005]

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘Comment’, Harper’s Weekly, 15 May 1906, p 616, cited in Kevin Rozario, ‘Making Progress: Disaster Narratives and the art of optimism in Modern America’, in The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, ed. by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas Camparella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p 30.

[4] William Cronon, ‘A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative’, The Journal of American History, 78, 4, March 1992, pp 1346-1375, (p 1353).

[5] To emphasise the way that units in society, culture physical processes and biological features are bound into systems, I will use the terms ‘socio-ecological system’ interchangeably with the two theoretical models discussed in this paragraph.

[6] Jared Orsi, Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2003), p 8.

[7] Ibid, p 9.

[8] Frederick Bates and Carlo Pelanda, ‘An Ecological Approach to Disasters’, in Disasters, Collective Behaviour and Social Organization, ed. by Russell R. Dynes and Kathleen J. Tierney (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994) citations on p 154.

[9] Ibid, p 156.

[10] See Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith, ‘Anthropology and the Angry Earth’ in The Angry Earth: disaster in anthropological perspective, ed. by Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith (London: Routledge, 1999), p 31.

[11] Ibid, pp 156-8.

[12] Robert Bolin and Lois Stanford, ‘Constructing Vulnerability in the First World: The Northridge Earthquake in Southern California, 1994’, in The Angry Earth, ed. by Hoffman and Olive-Smith, pp 88-112, citations on p 90, 92.

[13] Robert Bolin with Lois Stanford, The Northridge Earthquake: Vulnerability and Disaster (London, New York: Routledge, 1998), p 53.

[14] Ibid, pp 91-100; Walter Gillis Peacock with A. Kalken Ragsdale, ‘Social Systems, Ecological Networks and Disasters: Toward a Socio-Political Ecology of Disasters’, in Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, Gender and the Sociology of Disaster, ed. by Walter Gillis Peacock, Betty Hearn Morrow and Hugh Gladwin (London: Routledge, 1997), pp 20-35.

[15] Bolin and Stanford, Northridge Earthquake, p 46. They point out that the relationship between class and race and physical exposure is more pronounced in technological than in natural hazards. For a discussion of mobile homes and vulnerability to disaster, see Theodore Steinberg, Acts of God: the Unnatural History of Natural Disasters in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), especially p 113.

[16] For a discussion of distribution in ecological fields, see Bates and Pelanda, ‘An Ecological Approach to Disasters’, p 153.

[17] Katherine Fry, Constructing the Heartland: Television News and Natural Disaster (Cresshill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2003) pp 10-23.

[18] William Cronon, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’ in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. by William Cronon (New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994).

[19] Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt, 1893).

[20] William Alexander McClung, Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), p 5.

[21] Cronon, ‘A Place for Stories’, p1372. On the other hand, a society might try to change the course of, or create physical processes. For example, Steinberg discusses how American researchers attempted to ‘create’ weather, Acts of God, pp. 128-147.

[22] Rozario, ‘Making Progress’.

[23] Steinberg argues that by blaming nature solely for disasters, politicians, business leaders and engineers could justify social and environmental policies that either made disasters more common, or exacerbated their consequences.

[24] Ari Kelman, A River and its city: An Environmental History of New Orleans (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2003) p 158.

[25] The history of levee building in New Orleans began in 1718, when French colonists founded the city. Colonists expected its ‘magnificent system of watery roads’ to enable commerce within a colonial city and with other ports and cities, via the Gulf; Kelman, A River and its City, p 4. However, the river also posed a hazard, as it threatened to flood the city. Colonists began to reinforce the river’s natural levees, and by 1727 they had built an eighteen foot wide, yard high artificial embankment that had stretched for one mile. Throughout the colonial, antebellum and post civil war eras, the levee continued to grow in order to deal with rising water levels; Kelman, A River and its City, p 161.

[26] Ibid, p 171, p 158, p 161, p 162. Kelman points out that the river, and its sources (the Red, Ohio and Missouri rivers) cover ten entire states, and sections of another twenty-two, p 2. This means that flooding is affected by deposits made by human activity in different American states and regions.

[27] Ibid, p 158.

[28] Ari Kelman, ‘City of Nature: New Orleans’ blessing, New Orleans’ Curse’, Slate Magazine, August 31 2005

[29] Kelman, A River and its City, p 158.

[30] Ibid, pp 173-188. John M. Barry argues that the social and political interests of an elite ‘club’ in New Orleans was vital in shaping decisions made about flood responses in 1927. John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

[31] Phillip Boman, Dr Ben Lahn and Paul Coreil, ‘Louisiana’s Vanishing Coast: Processes and Problems’, Part III., Louisiana Conservationist (May/June 1994) pp 4-6, cited in Albert E. Cowdrey, This Land, This South: An Environmental History (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

[32] Jeffrey Kluger, ‘Global Warming: The Culprit? Evidence mounts that human activity is helping fuel the number of hurricanes’, Time, 3 October 2005, available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[33] Joseph B. Transter, ‘Life- Or- Death Words of the Day in a Battered City’, The New York Times, (31 August 2005), available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[34] Ibid. Transter cites Colonel Terry Ebbert, New Orleans’ chief of homeland security who admitted that there was ‘a major looting problem’ involving ‘large groups of armed individuals’.

[35] ‘Refugees brace to make a home in another dome’, Journal Gazette, September 1st 2005, available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[36] Bolin and Stanford, The Northridge Earthquake, p 64.

[37] M. Dear, ‘In the City Time Becomes Visible: Intentionality and Urbanism in Los Angeles, 1781-1991’ in The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. by A. Scott and E. Soja (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), cited in Ibid, p 68.

[38] Bolin and Stanford, The Northridge Earthquake, p 68.

[39] Boyle Workman, The City That Grew (Los Angeles, 1935), cited in Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992, UK edition, London: MacMillan, 1998), p 9. McClung argues that ‘funnelling water’ is one part of LA’s ‘Utopian commitment’, as enabling social units to ‘cultivate and shape the landscape’ according to its mythologies of desire. In ‘Arcadian mythology of California’, human improvements are viewed as tampering with natural paradises; Landscapes of Desire, p 15. This illustrates how ‘myths’ or belief systems shape the development of social ecologies and expose them to natural disaster risks.

[40] Bolin and Stanford, The Northridge Earthquake, p 72.

[41] Ibid, p 10.

[42] Helen F. Hester and Sara B. Shull, ‘Hurricane Katrina: New Orleans, a snapshot of America’, The Atlanta Journal, (September 7 2005), available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[43] ‘Katrina takes lives of elderly, immobile’, Journal Gazette, 26 October 2005, available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[44] Thomas Frank, ‘Roots may save lower of 9th Ward, New Orleans’ Ground Zero Remains Home in the Hearts of Many’, USA Today (December 6 2005), available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[45] E. Soja, ‘Los Angeles 1965-1992: From Crisis Generated Restructuring to Restructuring Generated Crisis’ in The City, ed. by Soctt and Soja, cited in Bolin and Stanford, The Northridge Earthquake, p 74.

[46] Ibid, p 74.

[47] Ibid, p 75.

[48] Ibid, p 186.

[49] Rozario, ‘Making Progress’, p 27.

[50] Ibid, p 29.

[51] Ibid, p 29-30.

[52] Ibid, p 32.

[53] ”This Great City Shall Rise Again’, Bush tells nation, recovery plan for Gulf Coast- Jobs, housing, reconstruction’, The Seattle Times, September 16 2005. Available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[54] ‘‘We’re going to make it right,’ Bush promises’, The Seattle Times,September 3 2005; Department of Homeland Security, ‘New Orleans Receives $20 million payment from FEMA’, both at [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[55] For examples of criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of relief efforts, see Simon Schama, ‘Sorry Mr President: Katrina is not 9/11’, The Guardian (September 12 2005), Available at URL,16441,1567841,00.html; ‘We’re going to make it right’, Bush promises’, The Seattle Times, 3 September 2005, Available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[56] ‘New Orleans Mayor Says Improved Levees Will Help Spur Recovery- Federal, State and Local Officials Seeking to Lure Back Business Residents’, State Department, Press Releases and Documents (4 November 2005) Available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[57] George Harvey ‘Comment’, Harpers Weekly, 5 May 1906, p 616, cited in Rozario, ‘Making Progress’, p 31.

[58] ‘Analysis, Rebuilding New Orleans, how and for whom’, All Things Considered, Broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR), 3 October 2005, available at [Accessed on 23/12/2005].

[59] ‘Rebuilding New Orleans’

[60] Peter King, ‘The Latest 100 Year Disaster’, Los Angeles Times, 15 March 1995, cited in Davis, p 6.

[61] Davis, p 36.

[62] Ibid, p 32.

[63] Quoted in R. Monastersky, ‘Los Angeles Faces a Dangerous Quake Debt’, Science News (21 January 1995), p 37, cited in Davis, p 32.

[64] These measurements refer to the intensity of an earthquake, measured along a Richter scale. The Northridge quake measured M 6.7.

[65] Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities, ‘Seismic Hazards in Southern California: Probability of Earthquakes, 1994 to 2024’, Bulletin of the Seismological Society in America, 85, (April 1995), p 394, cited in Davis, p 33.

[66] L. Knopoff et al, ‘Increased Long Range Intermediate-Magnitude Earthquake Activity prior to Strong Earthquakes in California, Journal of Geophysical Research, 101 (10 March 1996) pp 229-32, cited in Davis, p 34.

[67] Stallings argues that the ecology of risk in California has been ‘socially constructed’ as scientific research warn the public of the risk of future catastrophic disasters. Los Angeles residents see the earthquake risk changing constantly, not because the likelihood of a disaster is necessarily any greater than before, but because scientific knowledge evolves. R. Stallings, Promoting Risk: Constructing the Earthquake Threat (New York: Aldine de Gryter, 1995), cited in Bolin and Stanford, The Northridge Earthquake, p 15.

[68] ‘Above the Water, Plans Float for Rebuilding the City’, The Seattle Times, September 12, 2005. Available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[69] For example, Joseph Wagner, Professor of urban planning at the University of Missouri explained, ‘The city of New Orleans is all about the people. If the people come back and rebuild, the city will survive. If they don’t, fragmentation of local culture could occur’, Tony Freemantle, ‘Recapturing the City is not a Given,’ Houston Chronicle, September 4, 2005. Available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[70] Davis, p 48.

[71] Ibid, p 168-9. This contrasts with the Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995, in which 6,400 people died. Although there was a large scale mobilization of volunteer groups, existing civil society networks were weak, and could not co-ordinate volunteers in a relief effort, Ibid, p 61.

[72] Davis, p 46.

[73] Bolin and Stanford, ‘Constructing Vulnerability in the First World’, pp 105-7.

[74] Ibid, p 213-5.

[75] Colonel Terry Ebbert, New Orleans’ Chief of Homeland Security, cited in Transter.

[76] Residents called FEMA’s intervention ‘anaemic, uncoordinated and agonizingly slow and tardy’. Federal aid did not arrive for four days after the hurricane first struck. ‘We’re going to make it right’, Bush promises’, The Seattle Times, 3 September 2005, Available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[77] Ollie Reed Junior, ‘A Square Sill in Knots’, The Albuquerque Journal (26 November 2005), available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]

[78] Manuel Rois Franzeria, ‘A Day’s Work Does Not Come Easy in New Orleans; Latino Labourers Drawn to City Live in Squalor’, The Washington Post (December 18 2005), available at URL [Accessed on 23/12/2005]