An Imperfect Storm: Narratives of Calamity in a Liberal-Technocratic Age
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Alex de Waal is a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University, and programme director at the Social Science Research Council in New York. He is the author of Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan (revised edition, Oxford University Press 2005) and, jointly with Julie Flint, of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War (forthcoming, Zed Press, September 2005).

Left Speechless

America is distressed by Hurricane Katrina. Two weeks after the hurricane struck Louisiana and Mississippi, America is just beginning to emerge from the phase of raw bewilderment, in which the crisis is not just a threat to lives and livelihoods but also to the nation’s political imagination. Watching some television footage in an electronics store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a young black man was saying randomly to shoppers, ‘I’m from there… I’m from there. If it happened here, it wouldn’t be allowed.’ His incoherence reflected not just his trauma, but his inability to find meaning or explanation. President George W. Bush’s more public speechlessness illustrated something comparable. This wasn’t scripted.

America is also distressed by the want of heroes in the storm story. Individual acts of courage and selflessness by people facing the deluge have not been matched by any heroes of officialdom: no one in authority bestrode the stage to offer, let alone bring, salvation. The catastrophe is inherently meaningless: a hurricane has neither ethics nor purpose. But the public leaders best able to craft a meaningful narrative will be those who shape America’s social and environmental policies and even its leadership over the next few years.

Historically, disasters have often challenged governments or even brought them down. Katrina may yet be to 21st century America as the Lisbon earthquake was to the Enlightenment, a moment for profound self-examination. But the capacity of powerful authorities to shrug off well-founded accusations of negligence and incompetence and generate political capital from human calamity should not be underestimated. There is a simple and salutary lesson from the comparative history of catastrophe: disasters most often exacerbate social inequality and benefit those in power.

Frames of Denial

Modern western societies invest heavily in denying the inevitability of disaster. Denial demands much more than not thinking about something: it demands the construction of an entire apparatus dedicated to shielding society from the magnitude of what it does not want to face. There is a rich literature on denial of atrocities including most notably the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry.1 Our denial of the inevitability of natural disaster also demands considerable effort. This is aided by the fact that most environmental calamities unfold over generations, and sudden onset disasters arise because of decades of neglect and denial. As Jared Diamond notes in his book Collapse—which deals largely with environmental change—societies choose not to respond.2 Diamond insists that complex modern societies are just as prone to this failing as their historic predecessors, which had far more limited scientific knowledge and technologies. Complex societies just fail in more complicated ways. The story of this begins with how we frame our geographies and timescales, and how we divide the social labor of responsibility for contemplating calamity.

Many societies routinely contemplate the deep past and consider a century merely a short step into the future. China’s rulers consider their country’s political eclipse of the last two centuries to be merely a blip; members of the living generation in a lineage-based society have responsibilities to both forebears and descendents; the Vatican doesn’t blink at launching a project of Biblical scholarship that will take more than a hundred years to complete. Scientific western societies have a far greater capacity to examine the past and anticipate the future, but it doesn’t follow that their political decision-making is informed by that time depth. To the contrary, as part of the individualization in western liberal technocratic societies, our time horizons have been massively foreshortened, to an individual lifespan and even less. Since the advent of antibiotics and car safety regulation, we have been able to reduce the real risks we face. With actuarial tables and fire insurance, we can pool the reduced risks against a statistical normalcy. That normalcy is defined by the period of history, and anticipated future, that financial service companies are ready to put at the service of the present.3 Typically, insurance and home equity loan companies set their denominators at half a century and impel us to make our personal decisions over a horizon of twenty or thirty years maximum. This is the fictional stability that underpins our life decisions. It may be interrupted at any time. It is fair to say that our financial system is designed on the principle of ‘aprês nous le deluge.’

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton fingered our misplaced confidence in regularity:

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.4

Spurred by the analyses of geophysicists and the intellectually curious, there are attempts to calculate the probabilities of apocalypse due to meteoric impacts, volcanic eruptions, climate change or pandemics of new diseases.5 But these are speculative enterprises, whose purpose is to awaken governmental interest (and funds) rather than to impel individuals to change their lifestyles. They are not systematically rewarded. As Bill McGuire comments, one of the drawbacks of being a prophet of doom is that you are unlikely to be around to relish the satisfaction of being proven right. Local apocalypse leaves its surviving Cassandras but it takes rare grace, on both sides, for such people to be given their due, let alone for them to be tasked with making amends.

Landscapes are more graphic than time horizons, and one of the main foci of a future Katrina Commission will be measuring the height of flood defenses, mapping the hydrology of the lower Mississippi floodplain, and examining the vulnerabilities of coastal cities. It is already clear that two immense planning mistakes were made: one was to rule out the possibility of a storm bigger than category three when heightening Louisiana’s levees after a near-miss by a hurricane in 1969, and the other was to stick to the status quo as the maximum option in recent years.

The geography of our cities is deliberately forgetful of disaster. Neapolitan real estate investors and town planners repeat the gamble of their Roman ancestors who built Pompeii on the slopes of Vesuvius. We will certainly hear much about the folly of massive building in floodplains and sheer scale of human habitation of high-risk coastal areas. Perhaps less conspicuous are the perils of building large and thirsty cities in the arid lands of the south-west. Our ecological planning baseline is the middle years of the 20th century, decades that were in retrospect unusually benign. Jared Diamond speaks of ‘creeping normalcy’ and ‘landscape amnesia’6: we don’t notice the incremental changes to our environment as they occur, year on year, and forget how our landscapes looked fifty years ago. Studying old photographs, or the memory of an elderly person returning after decades away, could in principle be a moment of ‘landscape recall’. Katrina may be that moment of landscape recall for America.

Citadels and Expertise

There is a social matrix to denial also. We divide our social labor so that specialized others have the responsibility for thinking about catastrophe. Surveying the repetition of disaster throughout human history, Kenneth Hewitt concluded that natural extremes are, in a human ecological sense, more knowable than many of the contemporary of the current social developments that pervade everyday life.7 Nonetheless, he said, we seek to ‘quarantine’ disaster, seeing its recurrence as ‘an archipelago of isolated misfortunes’. In response, western societies have invested the tasks of disaster preparedness and prevention in ‘citadels of expertise’ remote from the lives of ordinary people. It follows that ‘most natural and technological hazards are not articulated as social problems—until they happen’.8 The creation of some kind of technological-bureaucratic elite is inevitable: disaster preparedness and prevention demands a rare mix of specialized skills. However, this citadel is unlike other technical elites, because the premise of its existence, if taken to its logical conclusion, challenges all others. Even when preparing for a catastrophe is a political priority (for example in the case of nuclear war), the plans are almost comically inadequate. In the case of more mundane emergencies, those within the citadel are acutely aware of their scant information and resources—and commonly their meager authority.

Hewitt was writing in the early 1980s just as the authority of the civil servant-expert was coming to its end. Contemporary disasters strike in a deregulated and reliberalized world in which calamity must demonstrate its financial clout in the marketplace. Disasters in poor and faraway places must advertise, or to be precise, win the attention of the international NGO sector and its publicists.

Perhaps more significant is the assumption that a market economy with a free press and competitive electoral system is itself an inoculation against disaster. Amartya Sen’s remarks on this subject have been beatified: ‘The diverse political freedoms that are available in a democratic state, including regular elections, free newspapers and freedom of speech, must be seen as the real force behind the elimination of famines’.9 Such has been the liberal applause for these comments that Sen has been tempted to suspend his critical faculties and repeat the claim, out of its original context, which was that although democratic India had a good record in preventing famine, its performance on overcoming chronic poverty and malnutrition was quite awful, whereas the record of Mao’s China was the precise reverse. Sen’s point is better read as the claim that a highly visible crisis, which develops rapidly but with enough lead time for effective prevention measures to be workable, which has long been the focus for political contestation, is unlikely to occur in a country with institutions for free expression and free political mobilization. Such is the case with famine in India, the crux of the Indian Congress’s challenge to the British Raj from the late 19th century and to this day the subject of fierce scrutiny by Indian journalists and parliamentarians. Sen’s forthcoming book The Argumentative Indian clarifies this.

However, contra Sen’s caution, his remarks are celebrated as proof from authority that liberal democracy can prevent all disasters. In extremis, the argument is even heard that a free press and an informed citizenry make technical early warning systems redundant. Transferred to the economic sphere, international assistance analysts have investigated how a private insurance market could supplement and even supplant state provision of famine relief and other emergency logistics. The default option becomes blithely optimistic neglect. What need for mass evacuation plans when most people have cars, can buy bus tickets, and are kept informed by commercial television news?

In India, the combination of political freedoms and a state with much salutary experience with disasters means that the citadel of expertise is responsive to the citizenry. In fact, it is arguable that the country’s civil service functions best in times of crisis, as it gives otherwise-anonymous government employees a chance to shine. In the United States, the reverse has occurred: the institutions of government have been abused and eviscerated. Responsibility now falls on the citizen. Emblematic is the Bush Administration’s insistence on sexual abstinence and faithfulness as the means to prevent HIV/AIDS, jettisoning the accumulated wisdom of public health professionals and a long-matured apparatus for epidemiological surveillance and control. Laurie Garrett’s Betrayal of Trust tells this story,10 Peter Baldwin’s Disease and Democracy allows for a more contoured understanding of how and why the social contract over public health has shifted the burden of responsibility to the individual.11 Infectious disease has re-entered the domain of public policy through the door of national security. In order for the Administration to take notice of threats to human wellbeing such as avian flu, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, or HIV/AIDS, activists must first convince the Pentagon that they are a threat to U.S. national security. Garrett and several other advocates for taking infectious diseases seriously have done a remarkably effective job in this respect, although it has taken some remarkable intellectual contortionism, and the implications of the Department of Defense having a leading role in national health are as yet unclear.

Under the Bush Administration and its ‘Global War on Terror’, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was an early victim of ‘securitization’ when it was folded under the Department of Homeland Security. This decision has been sharply criticized by a press corps acutely aware of FEMA’s reduced capacity. Restoring FEMA’s independence, budget and expertise is an obvious reform. But it is more probable that the reverse will occur. Power politics is not suspended during humanitarian emergency, and the very weakness of FEMA creates space for the Pentagon to muscle in. Today, troops are deployed in Louisiana to stop looting and shore up flood defenses, and it is likely that the Defense Secretary’s remit will reach far wider in the aftermath.

Exposing Fissures

One of the abiding lessons of the sociology of disaster is that short-term responses, undertaken for the most ad hoc reasons, quickly become the pattern for long-term adaptation. Just as the ways in which rocks shatter, melt and re-form in the seconds after a meteoric impact is the way in which they stay for millions of years, so too is the impact of human disaster imprinted on social forms. Whether it is Palestinian villagers fleeing in 1948, Zambian villagers resettled because of the rising waters of the Kariba Dam12 or the United Nation’s on-the-hoof compromise over its agencies’ mandates,13 quite contingent patterns of social behavior and institutional authority rapidly become inescapable grids. A new normality quickly asserts itself and the moment of flux, when structures of authority are briefly subsumed by an egalitarianism of bewilderment,14 is replaced by a new hierarchy and allocation of responsibility. The disaster is consigned to its place in the political-cultural archive, memorialized and deployed to legitimize new institutions. There is, it seems, a recurrent need for a citadel of expertise, or at least a citadel.

A million Americans’ experience of internal exile may become as formative as the storm that precipitated their displacement. Actual and perceived race and class distinctions in the treatment of the displaced, promises made and broken about when and how people can return home, are likely to become divisive issues. Myriad acts of generosity, from spontaneous hospitality in neighboring towns to the nation’s colleges taking on uprooted students for a semester, may create new solidarities. But there will be a formidable number—without doubt the most disadvantaged—that remain in the care of the Federal Government. Another general lesson from the sociology of disaster is that it amplifies the extremes of human behavior. Famines and refugee flights have elicited acts of conspicuous generosity, and have also stripped away the layers of civilized conduct, ultimately leaving the human being, as the Russian sociologist Pitrim Sorokin wrote, ‘a naked animal on the naked earth’.15

While many individual acts, either of kindness or selfishness, may be unexpected, the overall rule is that calamity reveals the pre-existing workings of society in a dramatic fashion. Visible starvation or homelessness shows up the ‘silent violence’ that preceded it and made it possible.16 A stricken society fractures along the fault lines that were there all along. Longitudinal study of Guatemalan communities affected by the 1976 earthquake found that existing patterns of inequalities were accentuated both in the immediate response and in the reconstruction phase.17 In El Salvador, disaster prevention and mitigation actions put in place after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 failed to address the social inequalities that underpinned differential vulnerability to disaster, leaving the poorest just as exposed to the impact of the 2001 earthquake as beforehand.18 Tom Drabek’s comparative studies of the impacts of U.S. disasters found that black, elderly and low-income victims were less likely to receive official assistance.19 The Indian Ocean tsunami and its aftermath appear to have accelerated the peace process in Aceh, Indonesia, but to have driven the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers deeper into mutual acrimony.

Disasters afflict men and women differently, and alter the relations between them. Some of the divergence is archetypal: men often disperse while women cluster with children. Women’s experiences have typically been neglected in society’s narrative of historic disasters, and those who have examined them have found not only that they are very different from men’s, but that the reconstitution of gender relations can be the defining element of a calamitous event for the women who lived through it.20 More surprising to the lay observer, but utterly consistent in the demographics of disaster, is that females survive better than males, even in populations (such as northern India) which have a male survival advantage in normal times.21 A study of thirteen flood disasters in Europe and the U.S. finds the same gender disparity in deaths from drowning, mainly on account of unnecessary risk-taking by men.22

Interpretations of calamity can diverge sharply. As with an individual near-death experience, a community confronting a disaster confronts its deepest beliefs in the most compelling form. Religious leaders commonly attribute disasters to ‘Acts of God’—an exemplar being Jerry Falwell who managed to attribute both the HIV/AIDS epidemic and September 11 to Divine retribution. Hurricane Katrina will doubtless be pressed into service for all manner of causes, with environmentalists’ concerns over global warming and African-Americans’ anger over the disproportionately black racial identity of the people left behind in New Orleans at the top of the list. Social scientists must beware of their own tendency to regard ‘natural disaster’ as misnomer rather than mischance23: in an event such as this the natural and the social abut one another, and much as the storm lays bare social structures and processes, it is also a chance occurrence of a natural extreme. In some disasters, the mainstream news media’s ‘hierarchy of credibility’ remains intact—i.e. it trusts governmental and high-prestige sources—whereas in others it is challenged or reversed. Interestingly, Penelope Ploughman’s comparative study of this found that flood disasters were prone to subvert this hierarchy, in part because their sudden onset does not give the authorities time enough to obfuscate and prepare a script.24

Rare are the instances in which the social energies of a disaster response are channeled into a political challenge to the government that has presided over the disaster. The Indian Congress, well-advised by Irish nationalists, was exceptional in its ability to use popular outrage over mass hunger to fire the political debate. Argumentative voluntarism is a characteristic of India. In Britain, relief work is empirical, amateur and intermittently radical; French humanitarianism is principled and theatrical. The tradition of American voluntarism is Wilsonian, naturally aligning with government. The American Red Cross is run by eminent establishment figures such as Elizabeth Dole. Americans’ generosity to the victims of Katrina will probably register new highs on the Richter scale of monetary compassion. It is also possible that it may spill over into political critique: never before has the country been so politically polarized, and New Orleans’ unholy week has dramatized the social and racial divisions of the country like nothing else. Much will depend on the composition and credibility of the Katrina Commission, and how far it is ready to go in challenging the Administration.

After the tsunami, vast sums are being spent on setting up an early warning system. It is needed, even though the next Indian Ocean tsunami may be more than a hundred years away. Far larger amounts will be spent trying to beat back the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi. Those too are needed. What is still denied is the ubiquity of the unpredicted.

Shelter from the Storm

Denial of the real chance of major disaster goes hand-in-hand with a fascination with calamity, ranging from particularly gruesome crimes to apocalypse. Crime channels make popular television and the bestseller list has been topped by the Left Behind series, which describes itself as ‘a novel of the earth’s last days’, mixes Christian eschatology and revulsion-fascination with the disorder consequent on the ending of civilization as we know it.25 In between, we are absorbed by events such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and the atrocities of African civil wars. The tsunami gripped our imagination with peculiar intensity, a wave with both the speed and length of a freight train coming out of the blue and drowning affluent tourist and poor fisherman alike. Robert Kaplan’s reportage from the war zones of west Africa, describing the youth of Liberia and Sierra Leone as ‘loose molecules in a very unstable social fluid, a fluid that was clearly on the verge of igniting,’ 26 is best read as allegory on American society. His title: ‘The Coming Anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet,’ and the imagery of black youth rampaging through a shattered tropical city, are already rich sources of metaphor for New Orleans.

Disaster is a stage for heroism. This is clear in the media coverage of foreign famines, floods and wars, which are simplified into fairy-tale narratives with aid worker or peacekeeper as savior.27 Much of the debate on contemporary genocide has become displaced into a discussion of how America can save faraway victims by dispatching American troops, a preoccupation that reflects the country’s need for moral agency in its international policy. It helps that these disasters are far away and truncated in time (we don’t hear about them until they hit an unpredictable threshold of media concern). The more the journalist and editor need to simplify, the more they rely on a standard moral narrative. The more remote the country, the larger the hero can figure, and the more the scenery and extras can be molded to fit the plot.

September 11, 2001, struck with suddenness and simplicity, its heroes emerged organically from the tragedy, and its villains were so obvious (and conveniently, foreign and loathsome) that the failings of the CIA and National Security Council became quite ancillary.

Not so with Katrina and New Orleans: no stripped down heroic narrative will do for the grand sweep of the storm. Instead it is a genuine and truly complicated story of how policies are poorly designed and go wrong. Numerous neighborhood heroes are known about and others will emerge, but they cannot provide the salvation that the story seems to need. The challenges of September 12 look reassuringly straightforward in retrospect.

The science of Katrina’s inevitability demands that we look to the longue duree. The briefest historical moment—a week of gazing transfixed at collective oblivion—focuses the nation’s mind—on what it already knows, but what it may not have cared to admit. The list of these is long and complicated, nothing less than the accumulated social, economic, environmental and political ills of a hugely complicated society. The closet is open: every secret of poverty, race, municipal and federal mismanagement, unsustainable economic policies and real estate speculation, and blind faith in nature’s ultimate beneficence, is out. Another secret may be that America’s national security apparatus is so powerful that it can even rise above the destruction of a large American city and use the tragedy to further empower itself.

The moral of the hurricane is still unclaimed. One possible silver lining to this large and messy storm might be that it compels the Administration to bring some cautious and empirical experts into its citadel, and recognize that social and environmental policies need an open-minded and fact-based national debate. Let’s not take shelter from this storm.


1 Cohen, Stan, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, London, Polity, 2001.

2 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, New York, Viking, 2005.

3 Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, London, Wiley, 1996.

4 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, New York, Lane Press, 1909.

5 Bill McGuire, A Guide the End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know, Oxford 2003, Martin Rees, Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the 21st Century? London, Heinemann, 2003.

6 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, New York, Viking, 2005.

7 Hewitt, Kenneth, ‘The Idea of Calamity in a Technocratic Age,’ in Kenneth Hewitt (ed.) Interpretations of Calamity, from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology, Boston MA, Allen and Unwin, 1983.

8 G. A. Kreps, ‘Sociological Inquiry and Disaster Research,’ Annual Review of Sociology, 1984, 10, 309-30, p. 321.

9 Sen, Amartya K., ‘Individual freedom as a social commitment,’ New York Review of Books, 14 June 1990.

10 Garrett, Laurie, Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health, New York, Hyperion Press, 2000.

11 Baldwin, Peter, Disease and Democracy: The Industrialized World Faces AIDS, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005.

12 Colson, Elizabeth, The Social Consequences of Resettlement: the impact of the Kariba Resettlement on the Gwembe Tonga, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1971.

13 For example the innovation of peacekeeping forces in the Suez crisis of 1956 or ‘persons of concern to UNHCR’ in Sudan in 1984.

14 Cf. Victor Tanner’s concept of ‘communitas.’

15 Pitrim Sorokin, Hunger as a Factor in Human Affairs, Gainesville, University of Florida, 1975.

16 Cf Michael Watts, Silent Violence: Food and famine in northern Nigeria, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983.

17 F. L. Bates et al., cited in G. A. Kreps, ‘Sociological Inquiry and Disaster Research,’ Annual Review of Sociology, 1984, 10, 309-30.

18 Ben Wisner, ‘Risk and the Neoliberal State: Why Post-Mitch Lessons Didn’t Reduce El Salvador’s Earthquake Losses,’ Disasters, 25, 2001, 151-68.

19 T. E. Drabek and W. H. Key, Conquering Disaster: Family Recovery and Long-Term Consequence, New York, Irvington, 1983.

20 An example is the 1948 famine in Malawi, as studied by Megan Vaugan, The Story of an African Famine, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

21 Kate Macintyre, ‘Famine and the Female Mortality Advantage,’ in T. Dyson and C. Ó Gráda (eds.) Famine Demography: Perspectives from Past and Present, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002.

22 Sebastiaan Jonkman and Ilan Kelman, ‘An Analysis of the Causes and Circumstances of Flood Disaster Deaths,’ Disasters 29, 2005, 75-97.

23 Cf. Hewitt, 1983.

24 Penelope Ploughman, ‘Disasters, the Media and Social Structures: A Typology of Credibility Hierarchy Persistence Based on Newspaper Coverage of the Love Canal and Six Other Disasters,’ Disasters, 21, 1997, 118-37.

25 Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind, Wheaton, ILL, Tyndale House, 1995 et seq.

26 Kaplan, Robert, ‘The Coming Anarchy,’ Atlantic Monthly, February 1994.

27 Cf. Jonathan Benthall, Disasters, Relief and the Media, London, IB Tauris, 1994.