Hurricanes, Poverty, and Vulnerability: An Historical Perspective
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Matthew Mulcahy is associate professor of history at Loyola College in Maryland. His book, Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in December, 2005.

The horrific images that continue to emerge from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have brought issues of race and poverty in America to the forefront of public consciousness. Television and newspaper reports repeatedly highlight the extent to which those with resources largely managed to escape the terror of the storm and its immediate aftermath, while poor, mostly black residents have suffered unspeakable distress and suffering, and economic status will likely play a central role in the ability of residents to recover from the devastation in the weeks, months, and perhaps years ahead. Katrina’s devastation is of course linked to specific environmental, economic, social, and political circumstances in the region – for New Orleans, its position below sea level, its high poverty rate, the racial dimensions of that poverty, funding cuts for levee maintenance, among other factors, have all helped shape the effects of the storm. But in a larger context, the relationship between poverty and disaster that has been emphasized in recent days is not unique to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. The history of hurricanes in what can be called the Greater Caribbean – the islands of the West Indies and the states along southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts – offers repeated evidence that the poor have often felt the effects of hurricanes most severely. The following focuses mostly on the experience with hurricanes during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, primarily in the British colonies, but concludes with some examples drawn from the nineteenth and twentieth-century United States.

The word hurricane derives from the Native American word huracán. Native American groups throughout the Caribbean basin recognized huracán (spelled in a variety of ways) as a powerful god or supernatural force under the control of a god. The Taino Indians of the Greater Antilles held that huracán was responsible for the formation of the islands themselves. In Mayan culture, hurakán was one of the three most powerful forces in the pantheon of deities, along with cabrakán (earthquake) and chirakán (volcano). 1

Columbus became the first European to experience a hurricane during his second voyage to the region in 1495, and it was from his accounts that information about the storms and the word itself entered European consciousness and vocabularies. Hurricanes routinely battered Spanish settlements on Hispaniola, Cuba, and Florida during the sixteenth century. English privateers reported encountering “Furicanos” during the various raids on Spanish ships and settlements during the sixteenth century, but it was not until the English established permanent colonies in North America and the Caribbean during the early seventeenth century that they gained a true appreciation for the power of the storms. Hurricanes quickly became the most feared element of physical environment in many of the colonies. St. Christopher, the first English colony in the West Indies, suffered a hurricane nine months after it was colonized in 1624 and another two years later. Perhaps the most famous storm in early American history occurred in 1609 when the ship Sea Venture, en route to Virginia with passengers and supplies, foundered on the island of Bermuda during a hurricane. An account of that storm may have inspired Shakespeare’s Tempest. The French settled the Gulf coast only at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but colonists there soon had their own experiences with hurricanes. A 1722 storm destroyed thirty four houses, the church, and the hospital in New Orleans. Another major hurricane damaged the city in 1779. One survivor wrote, “More than half of the town was stript of its covering, many houses thrown down in town and country, no ship or vessel of any kind was seen on the river next morning. The river which at this season is low was forced over its banks, and the crops which were not yet collected, disappeared from the face of the earth.” 2

Then, as now, commentators struggled to find adequate words to describe the power of a hurricane. One colonial governor simply reported to his superiors in London that “To describe the hurricane is impossible.” A seventeenth-century colonist recalled that the “terrour” of the storm “was such that I thought it the Emblem of Hell & the last dissolution of all things.” After surviving a 1772 hurricane in the West Indies, a young Alexander Hamilton wrote that the noise accompanying a storm would “strike astonishment into Angels.” All agreed that hurricanes were “the most terrible calamity to which they are subject from the climate.”

During the initial decades of colonization, hurricanes generated shared misery among colonists in the West Indies and elsewhere. All colonists struggled to find adequate provisions and to rebuild their small and simple settlements following various storms. But the development of plantation agriculture – particularly sugar in the West Indies and rice along the Carolina coast – and the transition to large-scale African slavery beginning in the mid-seventeenth century transformed the impact of hurricanes. Among white colonists, increased wealth from plantation agriculture led to greater social and economic stratification – which meant increased differences in housing, resources, and access to credit, all of which influenced vulnerability and experiences with storms. Following the 1675 hurricane in Barbados, for example, numerous small farmers who lacked the resources to rebuild were forced to sell their land to wealthier sugar planters, furthering the process of land consolidation into the hands of elites. The hurricane that struck Jamaica on October 3, 1780 stripped many poor whites of what few resources they had, and many suffered from “great distress and sickness,” and were “reduced to beggary.” A second hurricane struck Barbados seven days later and killed numerous British colonists, but as the governor noted, “fortunately few People of Consequence are among the number.” The wealthiest West Indian planters were able to flee the region altogether, becoming absentees in England and managing their estates from afar. Their properties remained vulnerable to destruction by storms, but they resided safely in what one called a “more favoured climate.”

African slaves comprised the poorest and most vulnerable members of these plantation societies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and hurricanes took an especially heavy toll on slave populations. Although exact numbers are hard to calculate given incomplete records, it is clear that hurricanes routinely killed hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of slaves. Two hundred slaves perished during a 1722 hurricane in Jamaica when the slave ship Kingston sank. The October 10, 1780 storm killed at least 2,000 slaves in Barbados: some records suggest that the slave population decreased by over 5,000 between 1780 and 1781, and one observer stated that most perished in the storm or from storm-related causes. After sweeping across Barbados, the storm moved north through the Lesser Antilles. At least 20,000 people perished, many of them slaves, making the 1780 storm the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history. An 1822 hurricane in South Carolina claimed the lives of hundreds of slaves who found themselves trapped in the low-lying Santee Delta, miles from higher ground and with no shelter.

The devastation from hurricanes meant food, clean water, adequate shelter were often in short supply for weeks, sometimes months, resulting in difficult conditions. Following two hurricanes in 1681, one St. Christopher planter noted that the storms had occasioned a “sickly and scarce time” on the island. Colonists who survived the 1722 hurricane in Jamaica were “reduced to great extremity for want of water, provisions, and other necessarys.” Such shortages and the lack of adequate shelter made the island “very sickly,” and claimed numerous lives. One Jamaica planter noted that water following the 1780 storm “stinks horribly & tastes very nauseous.”

Although all colonists experienced hardships in the wake of the storms, slaves, whose diet was inadequate even in the best of times, suffered most severely. A Jamaican planter wrote that many slaves would “starve” following a 1690 hurricane for a want of provisions. The governor of South Carolina worried that the colony would be “destitute of provisions” following two hurricanes in 1752, and that the slave population in particular would require tens of thousands of bushels of corn. Jamaica was struck by five hurricanes in seven years in the 1780’s, and the repeated food shortages and disease claimed thousands of slave lives. An investigation conducted by the Jamaican Assembly following the fifth storm in 1787 concluded that at least 15,000 slaves perished as a result of the storms. Many died of “Famine or of Diseases contracted by scanty and unwholesome diet” in the weeks after the storms. Jamaican leaders placed much of the blame for the crisis at the feet of British officials, claiming that British policies restricting trade with the new United States eliminated a major source of provisions and greatly exacerbated the damage caused by the storms.

Hurricanes were big news in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and as is the case today, news accounts of the storms often generated tremendous public sympathy. By the middle of the eighteenth century, private individuals and organizations often coordinated relief campaigns that raised significant sums of money for hurricane victims in far-off colonies. No government agencies administered disaster relief, but local government sometimes allocated funds for victims, as did the national government on occasion. In 1780, British officials granted £120,000 to aid hurricane-ravaged colonists in Jamaica and Barbados. Later, they allocated £50,000 for victims of the 1831 storm in Barbados. (After devastating Barbados, the 1831 storm moved through the Greater Antilles and then crashed into the Gulf Coast, causing widespread flooding and damage in New Orleans and the surrounding region.)

Issues of race and class influenced how the money was used and who received assistance. Parliament allocated relief funds to Jamaica and Barbados to assist the poorest and most distressed victims of the 1780 hurricanes, but in both colonies much of the money ended up aiding the wealthiest sugar planters. Barbados officials diverted 50% of the bounty to pay off the public debt rather than raise taxes, which would have been levied according to slave-holdings. Some funds were distributed among poor whites, but as one contemporary historian noted, “the boon that was intended for the relief of the poor distressed, was applied to lessen the taxes on the opulent possessors of slaves.” In Jamaica, officials divided victims into three classes and granted roughly 50% of the relief money to sugar planters, 25% to the poorest colonists, and the other 25% to smaller farmers and planters. Officials explicitly rejected petitions from free black residents in two parishes who argued they should receive some assistance because they paid taxes, served in the militia, and were “good citizens.” Officials told petitioners that the “the mulattoes were not to have anything.” Embittered poor and middling whites also protested that by awarding so much of the money to sugar planters officials had acted, “contrary to every principle of moral arithmetic,” but their petitions likewise brought no redress. Elites controlled the relief process, and they distributed the funds as they saw fit. 3

Hurricanes continued to cause particular suffering among the poor in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A hurricane in late August 1893 swept across the lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina, killing hundreds and leaving tens of thousands homeless, many of them African Americans. Neither federal nor state government offered assistance to victims, and what relief did come was organized by the Red Cross. Two months later, at the beginning of October, another hurricane – one of six to strike the mainland United States that year – hit the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, killing as many as 2,000 residents, many of them poor fisherman. Over 1,800 people living and working along Lake Okeechobee died in 1928 when a hurricane struck South Florida. Roughly 2/3 of the victims were migrant workers, most of whom were African American. The 1928 storm is often listed as the second deadliest storm in US history, behind the 1900 Galveston hurricane, but few people, even in Florida, know much about the storm, in part because most victims were poor and black. Seven years later, on Labor Day, 1935, a category 5 hurricane hit the Florida Keys. Roughly 400 people perished. The majority were Bonus Marchers – World War I veterans who had marched on Washington seeking payment of a promised government bonus for their service. The veterans were sent to Florida by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to complete work on a highway between Key West and the mainland. Little thought had been given to providing adequate shelter, and a relief train sent at the last minute to evacuate the veterans was smashed during the storm. In an essay published after the storm, Ernest Hemingway pointedly questioned, “Who Murdered the Vets?” 4

The number of lives lost to Katrina will almost certainly surpass the 1928 hurricane, and if New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s prediction of 10,000 lives proves accurate, it may become the deadliest disaster in American history.5 The devastation Katrina has wrought – the damage to property, the wholesale evacuation of a major American city – appears unprecedented. What remains all-too-familiar at this point within an historical context, and what will likely become even more apparent as the dead are counted and the work of relief and reconstruction begins in the coming weeks and months, is that the poor, many of them African Americans, have suffered most severely from Katrina and her aftermath. Despite advanced forecasting of storms, the widespread dissemination of that information, improved structural engineering, and the creation of permanent government agencies dedicated to disaster management and relief, poverty and vulnerability to disaster remain linked in tragic and damning ways.


1 Louis Perez, Winds of Change: Hurricanes and the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba (Chapel Hill, 2001), 17-19. Unless otherwise noted, the information and quotations are drawn from Matthew Mulcahy, Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783 (Baltimore, 2005).

2 On New Orleans, see David Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870 (Boston, 1963), 60-66.

3 Ibid., 140-42.

4 Bob Sheets and Jack Williams, Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth (New York, 2001), 54-57; Eric Gross, Somebody Got Drowned, Lord: Florida and the Great Okeechobee Hurricane Disaster of 1928 (Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 1995), 1-13; Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (New York, 2000), 61-68; and Raymond Arsenault, “The Public Storm: Hurricanes and the State in Twentieth-Century America,” in Wendy Gamber, et al, eds. American Public Life and the Historical Imagination (South Bend, IN, 2003), 262-292.

5 Jacqueline Salmon and Josh White, “Toll Suspected to Soar as Body Recovery Begins,” Washington Post, September 6, 2005, A10