Categorizing Sandy

Hurricane Sandy happened two weeks ago – it (not she – because a lot of very smart people have written quite a bit about how oddly and quickly the violently gendered language around the hurricane spun out of control) decimated New Jersey and New York, particularly coastal communities along the Jersey Shore, barrier islands, Staten Island and the Rockaways.  I’ve lived in New Jersey my entire life, and although the town I live in wasn’t particularly hard-hit, the emotional impact of the storm – even two weeks and a presidential election later – is still made manifest here.

Mario Tama/Getty Images, via the Baltimore Sun’s “Darkroom” blog.

I’ve been trying to think about how to write about this from the perspective of someone who studies disaster, and I keep coming back to the need to explain that I am from this place where this thing has happened – that I am not merely a distant observer of catastrophe.  While I’m sure some of that impulse comes of not wanting to exploit a terrible thing in service of my own thoughts on an academic subject, I think that it also suggests something about the field – if there is one – of disaster studies – and maybe also something about how Sandy was reported until the Presidential election overshadowed all other news.

One of the things I open with when I  teach disaster history is the degree to which disasters make for a fractured historical narrative.  A number of quite interesting books have been written about individual disasters, but only a few historians – most notably Ted Steinberg – have tackled disasters as historical subjects.  Jonathan Bergman has recently noted that “disaster studies have experienced some interesting developments and offer great lessons for historical scholarship, yet this reviewer is bedeviled by the suspicion that the subject has not formally ‘arrived’. Reconnaissances have been made, and initial volleys fired, but no scholarly introductions have been tendered on the historical field. Neither has there been a call for a sustained and rigorous discussion of its methods and values”  I think, in part, that the very objects of study are deviations from the norm, and the experiences of people who lived through them are wildly divergent from their everyday lives.

This isn’t to say that disaster history doesn’t have ways of dealing with the fact that the things it studies are in many ways outside of everyday experiences.  Some, including Steinberg, Mike Davis and Matthew Mulcahy, situate natural disasters in terms of the human circumstances that produce them.  For the past few years, the classic example invoked to illustrate this point is Hurricane Katrina.  In fact, the authors of the essays in There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class and Hurricane Katrina point out that it was the social conditions in New Orleans that killed so many people, rather than the eleventh named storm of the 2005 storm season – any major storm would have done the trick, as it were.  Other scholars, particularly scientists who study natural hazards, have pushed back on this historicized or contextualist approach to disaster studies, noting that without catastrophic events, there are simply no disasters to study – they note that particular aspects of that particular storm were responsible for its “disasterousness.”  However, whether we study the natural event itself – in the case of Sandy, a “post-tropical cyclone” – or, if we take the approach described by Alessa Johns as one in which, “If a disaster is defined as a physical phenomenon – an earthquake, a hurricane, or a flood, for example – affecting a human group adversely, then surely the activities of that human community, both before and after the event, require investigation,” a disruptive event is still at the center of the story.  Put another way, both of these approaches lead to a field of disaster studies characterized by unique “firefly events,” rather than grand narratives.

“Ruins at Cranston, R.I. – The Great New England Hurricane of 1938”

This is a very long way of saying that the state of the field of disaster history mapped very closely onto what I experienced waiting for Sandy to hit, and experiencing its aftermath.  People understood the possibility of disaster, but had little by way of a framework for approaching, anticipating or understanding it.

Both before and after the storm, commentators drew comparisons between Sandy and Katrina (largely in the context of Presidential responses).  Others looked farther afield, positioning Sandy in terms of the 1938 hurricane, dubbed by some the “Long Island Express,” which had decimated much of New England, leaving high water marks that are still visible today.  Commentators also reached for superlatives – “New York Subways Hit with the Worst Disaster in 108 Years”; “Ranks Among the Worst Economic Disasters”; and the Wikipedia article’s first paragraph casts Sandy as the largest Atlantic storm on record, the second most expensive Atlantic hurricane in history, and one of the strongest storms of all time. (Usual caveats about Wikipedia use apply here)

It seems like, short of comparing this terrible event to other terrible events, we have almost no rubric for understanding what happened.  For those living through this, the conditions that lead to overbuilt beach communities, or a lack of effective dune screening, or any other structural cause don’t matter, and offer no perspective on loss.  I think that some of these impressions must bleed over into the historiography, because the same comparative framing happens there too.  While I’m absolutely committed to a deeply contextualized social, political and economic understanding of disaster, I also wonder if looking at patterns in aftermaths – in policy, or environmental change, or even demography – might be another way to understand disasters as part of a coherent field, rather than as sudden and disruptive events.

I was also struck by something a friend said to be over e-mail a few days after Sandy.  He mentioned (I paraphrase) that he wondered if, as our possessions, houses and furniture become more and more similar/big-box/Ikea, that the aftermath of very different disasters wouldn’t start to look, and feel more and more the same.  That might be the case from an outside perspective – the worst-hit parts of the Rockaways could certainly have been hit by a tornado or an earthquake – but so long as historical practice is rooted in using sources produced by people who lived through events, disaster history will always feel – to some degree – scattershot.  The people telling us about these things did in the past, and are likely to continue to, describe them in exceptional and unique language, contextualizing them, if at all, in terms of other “worst,” “most expensive” and “most deadly” events.  Given that, it’s easy to see why so many scholars, taking historical actors at their word, replicate that impression of disasters as disruptive, rather than the product of structures, in their own work.

Survivors searching the debris in Galveston, Texas. In the years following the storm, the entire city was raised 17 feet to prevent future flooding.

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