But the environmental processes are only one component of the region’s vulnerability to disaster.
In these acute crises, we see inspiring stories over and over: Communities come together. People risk their lives to save their neighbors as well as strangers. It is heartwarming. It reinforces everything that we want to believe about ourselves as Americans, as Texans, as Floridians, as Louisianans.
But examining why these moments of heroism become necessary tells a darker story about America. People don’t just find themselves in places vulnerable to flooding. They are pushed there by racial injustice, economic inequality, and short-term, profit-driven development practices. The long-term decay of the nation’s infrastructure is a direct result of policy decisions that politicians and communities make time and again. The Gulf Coast is an extreme example of this, a laboratory for what happens when you combine lax planning policies, aging flood-control mechanisms, and a geography that channels storms from the warm (and warming) waters of the Gulf into the cities that line it.
Wetland cities sitting on or near a gulf that generates some of the fiercest storms on earth are becoming more vulnerable to the “natural” hazards they’ve long battled. Their development is booming, but in the process the cities have torn out the wetlands, paved over the prairies, and built an economy (and politics) around the carbon-heavy oil and gas industries. The cities grow. Local disaster managers do the best they can to prepare. And then they wait, hoping the circulation of wind and water does not bring the worst case to them. But it will, eventually, and everyone knows this, except when they manage to forget it. This is a slow tragedy in innumerable acts.
“It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is something exceptional—exceptionally dangerous, that is—about the South’s approach to the sea,” writes Ted Steinberg, a historian and author of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, writes in the book’s final chapter
I talked with the editor of Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South, Cindy Ermus, about what the book could teach us about Houston and Harvey, disaster management, and racial inequality.
Alexis Madrigal: So your academic field is the history of disasters?
Cindy Ermus: I looked at disasters and crises throughout graduate school. My manuscript looks at a plague in 1720 in southern France. And I edited a volume about disasters in the Gulf South.
Madrigal: Do you see through-lines in this long history of disaster management from back then to now?
Ermus: There are certainly a lot of parallels in disaster management, the ways that societies and governments come together or don’t come together to manage a crisis or prevent a crisis before it happens. I argue that prior to the 18th century, disaster management was more local. It depended more on the responses and reactions of municipal authorities rather than a capital of an emerging nation-state. And what we see emerging then is the centralization of disaster management. It’s coming out of these capitals, or to use the U.S. term, federal bodies, like FEMA or international ones like the UN.