Why the Gulf Coast Is Uniquely Vulnerable to Disasters

It isn’t just because of the weather, a historian argues.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the nation has once again seen a Gulf Coast city flooded, its residents in peril. A new book of essays, due to be published next January, Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South, provides important social context for the many “natural” disasters that have plagued the region for 200 years.

The book’s editor, Cindy Ermus, a professor at the University of Lethbridge, argues in her introduction that the Gulf South shares underlying characteristics that connect its disasters across time and space.

“The Gulf South, and the Gulf Coast in particular, is bound together by much more than geography or the shared experience of risk and vulnerability to wind, water, erosion, and biological exchanges,” she writes. “More fundamentally, the environment has helped define the region’s identity and largely determined its history, its social fabric, and its economy.”

The cities of the Gulf Coast exist where they do because the ocean and rivers provide economic opportunities and scenic landscapes. But those same waters threaten to undermine the growing cities' safety during storms. Ermus cites the geographer Kent Mathewson, who maintained that the “workings and movements of streams, soils, seas, storms, and continental substrata may ultimately play a larger and more immediate role on this region than almost anywhere else on earth.”

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.

Madrigal: Thinking about the Cajun Navy or the people organizing themselves on Twitter, do you think we’re seeing a move away from that central government control?

Ermus: I would say that there does appear to be a kind of coming back to the community in terms of mitigating these crises. In the 18th and 19th centuries, communities begin to rely more and more on the state, whether it is for welfare, public health, or assistance in terms of disaster.

One of the things that has come with increased awareness of the role of governments and corporations in disasters—the neoliberalization of disaster responses—is a sense of distrust.

The community is thinking: We can’t rely on the state right now. We can’t wait around for Bush—in the case of Katrina—to finally respond and send in assistance. So, let’s mobilize ourselves. Maybe the state isn’t doing what it should. I do wonder. As a historian, all of this is very ongoing.

Madrigal: What is one concept from your field that you wish people out there knew?

Ermus: A natural disaster implies that human activity doesn’t have anything to do with it. One phrase that we use in disaster studies in place of “natural disaster” is a “natural hazard.” It’s not a disaster until it affects a human population and the degree to which it affects that population is oftentimes a human problem.

Why did Houston pave over their floodplains—knowing or potentially knowing the fact that they would flood if a major storm hit?

Madrigal: But even the concept of a quote-unquote “natural hazard” seems to have undergone a weirding because of climate change. It’s clearly a very difficult task to disentangle precisely or even roughly how much of the rain that fell from Harvey was linked to global warming and how much would have happened under “natural” conditions. (One climate scientist estimated about 30 percent.)

Ermus: To use Harvey as an example, the degree to which climate change is at fault should be clear. It should be clear that’s not the main cause of the storm. Climate change is not solely responsible for the storm. These kinds of storms have happened. What climate change might have influenced and very much did influence is the strength of the storm. We know that the Gulf of Mexico serves as the brewing pot, if you will. It’s this creator of storms. The water in the Gulf of Mexico remained warm year-round. The average sea-surface temperature never fell below 73 degrees, even in winter. Climate change is undeniably taking place. And it is influencing storms like Harvey.

So how natural is a natural hazard even, given the effects of climate change? That’s something we’ll be talking about a lot.

Madrigal: Where did your interest in the Gulf South come from?

Ermus: I grew up in the Gulf South. I experienced Hurricane Andrew [in 1992]. I do 18th-century [history] but I find myself always applying things from the 18th century to today and vice versa.

Madrigal: Just in the last 10 or 15 years, it seems like the Gulf has been hit with several region-altering environmental disasters from acute ones like Katrina, Ike, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the slow-burn of the oxygen-deprived dead zone and loss of coastal wetlands. Did you do the book because it’s such a disaster-prone region?

Ermus: It may not be the only capital of disaster but it is one among many. It has hundreds of years of experience with disasters and mitigation. And looking at this area will help us learn from the past as we look into a future where there will be more and more crises like this.

Madrigal: Aside from vulnerability to the same kinds of weather events, what unites the region?

Ermus: Infrastructure. I should mention Ted Steinberg’s afterword to Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South sums things up by looking at the slow disaster of infrastructure in Florida. In the case of infrastructure, this negligence takes decades and eventually comes to a head when Hurricane Katrina or Harvey makes landfall.

For example, infrastructure is what made Katrina the kind of disaster that it was. Decisions had been made on the ground. Things that could have easily been done and were instead neglected in terms of the construction of levees and the decisions of the Army Corps of Engineers in previous decades. Then there is the disappearance of the wetlands on the coast of Louisiana, which were disposed of to increase traffic to the Port of New Orleans. The wetlands are nature’s way of serving as protection against big storms.

Madrigal: How do the region’s politics and long history of racial inequality play into disaster management?

Ermus: Florida was the first state that I’m aware of to ban the use of the phrase “climate change.” The denial of climate change is going to significantly slow the progress of any infrastructure development or decisions that could help prevent crises like this.

In terms of the social history of the region, there are several chapters in the volume that address the environmental injustice that has this long history in the region. For instance, Andy Horowitz, a professor at Tulane University, looks at the 1900 Galveston storm in Texas as a “part of the ongoing disaster of racial terror in Texas at the turn of the 20th century.”

Christopher Church, a professor at University of Nevada, Reno, looks at hurricanes throughout the 20th century to see how lower socioeconomic communities are almost always the most vulnerable to disaster because the most affordable part of any city is usually the part that’s most vulnerable to disaster. In some ways, really, all of the chapters touch on this.

Madrigal: Taking the long view, do you think the way we look at disasters has changed?

Ermus: The way that we view disasters and crises has changed. Disasters were viewed as acts of god. Divine punishment. In the 18th century we start to get away from that. We see an exponential increase in people looking at geological and “natural”—that’s in quotations—causes. And today, increasingly, we see them as the result of human activity.

Even in 1755, during the Lisbon earthquake, Jean-Jacques Rousseau cites human activity for creating a disaster. It’s kind of an evolution of the way we view disasters from acts of god to natural occurrences to human events.

Madrigal: What does focusing on the humans allow us to see?

Ermus: Andy Horowitz, one of the contributors to my volume, recently tweeted something to the effect of: As you observe what’s going on in Houston, you observe the effects of this storm, ask yourself what human decisions contributed to these ill effects. And that’s the bottom line. We’re seeing what’s going on with these storms. We’re seeing that these effects are becoming worse and affecting more people than ever before. So, what can we do differently? Are we gonna do nothing? At what point are we going to decide as a society that climate change is real and that infrastructure matters?