Institution for Social and Policy Studies

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Natural Disasters and the State: Inevitability vs. Responsibility

The psychologist William James happened to be visiting Stanford during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Recalling the event later, James wrote that he had been “struck” by the “universal equanimity” that followed. The earthquake had devastated the city, but “from the hundred losers whom I spoke to,” James reported, “not a single whine or plaintive word did I hear.” He continued: “Instead of that there was a temper of helpfulness beyond the counting.”

As you might expect, there is a line of thinking that comes down on the other side, suggesting that disasters are, in a word, disastrous. My research on disaster and recovery as an ISPS Policy Fellow tends to fall that way: over the long term, I argue, disasters aggravate inequality, hurting already vulnerable people the most.

Nonetheless, it was James’s account that came to mind earlier this month, when I met Larry Powell at his office in New Orleans. Powell is an emeritus professor of history at Tulane and one of Louisiana’s great historians. I had gone to New Orleans to receive a particularly generous gift from Professor Powell: five file boxes full of newspaper and magazine articles and other documents he had collected relating to Hurricane Katrina. The documents were the salvage of a book Powell had set out to write several years ago, about New Orleans from its colonial founding through to the present. As he wrote, Powell found himself so engrossed by the earlier period that he decided to linger there. He had done research on the city’s more recent history, but hadn’t had the chance to use it.

The book Powell produced is called The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. The Washington Post praised it as “the definitive history of New Orleans’s first century.” It is. When I read it, I also found a message even more fundamental: a vindication of history. Geographer Pierce Lewis called New Orleans an “inevitable city” because of its strategic location on the Mississippi River. But Powell’s account – which describes New Orleans as the unlikely product of “land-jobbing schemes, stock market crashes, and nonstop squabbles over status, power, and position” – shows that there’s nothing inevitable in the history of that city or maybe any other.

That is the kind of argument that I want to make about Katrina: the storm may have been inevitable, but the disaster that followed was not. (Isaiah Berlin wrote that inevitability is “one of the great alibis, pleaded by those who cannot or do not wish to face the fact of human responsibility.”) Revealing the contingencies, coincidences, and yes, accidents that transformed the wind and rain of August 29, 2005 into the catastrophe we now call Katrina is (or seems to me, anyway) an enormous task. This trove of documents—an extraordinary gift from Larry Powell, made accessible with ISPS’’s support—make it easier. For today, anyway, I’ll agree with William James: sometimes there is too “helpfulness beyond the counting.”

Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
Area of study 
Federal Government