From the New Orleans Picayune of September 9th, 1850:
At a recent meeting of Irishmen in New York, among other matters, it was Resolved, that any person who thence shall toast or drink the health of Victoria – the Queen of the English – merits and shall receive, socially and politically, the disfavor and contempt of every Irishman.
An item titled “donor demography” is always on my to-do list – I have a database with the names of over 5,000 individuals and groups who gave to famine relief, and there always seems to be something more I could be doing with that data. I’ve been playing around with a sample of 120 American donors. Telling a story about these people is tricky.
The easiest, and most bloodless approach is a statistical one:
In a sample of 12o donors, the largest single donation came from the Society of Friends in Philadelphia, who in February of 1847 collected $7,200. The smallest donation was of $1, and came from a “Friend of Ireland” somewhere in the vicinity of Charleston. The average donation was $443, but the most commonly donated amount was $5. The median donation was $50, and the geographic distribution of this sample (drawn from Charleston and New York Newspapers) shows donors scattered across the United States.
Another approach is to break them up into smaller groups, say, professional men (doctors, lawyers, clergymen, judges and military officers); men whose names don’t indicate rank or profession; women; towns and groups of people, and write a speculative narrative about what might have prompted men or women of a certain type to give.
From February to May of 1847, professional men across the United States contributed to famine relief. Some, like the Reverend Jas. Dupree of Summerville, South Carolina, gave as little as $3, while others like Dr. Benjamin Waldo, gave as much as $200. In the 1850s, a skilled laborer could make, at most $300 in a year, so the doctor’s donation certainly, and Reverend Dupree’s donation possibly represented a sizable portion of their household income. A significant majority of these men worked with a church in some capacity, suggesting that frequent exposure to doctrines of virtue through charity might have effectively encouraged some to give. These men also would have had access to the dominant newspapers of the day – easily affording penny periodicals like the New York Sun or Charleston Courier – and would consequently have been exposed to many of the circulating ideas about Americans’ obligations to the suffering Irish.
Finally, one of these donors from one of these groups, say “Dr. Reynolds” of Camden, SC, might be used to extrapolate the possible charitable motivations of men.
This “Dr. Reynolds” could have been any one of three Reynolds men living in Camden in 1840 (or someone else entirely, who emigrated in the intervening seven years). All three Reynolds residents of Camden owned slaves.
There, the trail goes cold. I could, with infinite time and resources, track down all of the donors mentioned in the records of famine charities, and that’s actually something I aspire to do some day, but those people who are recoverable from mid-nineteenth-censuses will likely prove to be remarkable in some way – an uncommon name or profession, or living in an uncommon place – rendering them less than ideal examples of the average or exemplary donor. Ultimately, I’m not convinced that having the stories of five thousands individuals will tell me more than trying to make sense of the groups they belonged to, or how they identified in their communities, but I’m neither sure what the best way to tell their stories is.
I’ve been throwing out variations on this line since I first saw this strip, and I’ve been having quite a few “the more history you learn…” moments in the past few weeks because of the hurricane.
On Saturday, the Press of Atlantic Cityreported that NOAA classified Sandy as a post-tropical cyclone right before it made landfall in NJ, a decision which is estimated to save homeowners/cost insurance companies millions of dollars in deductibles. NOAA isn’t a political body, but the classification is a fortuitous one for those facing insurance claims for their destroyed property, and it was echoed by NJ Governor Chris Christie when he issued an executive order prohibiting insurance companies from charging hurricane deductibles. (For a really fascinating discussion of the relationship between disasters and flood insurance, see parts II and III of Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God.) Though most of the article was about the impact of this call on insurance claims, the article briefly digresses into talking about what it means for a scientific body to be in charge – however indirectly – of a huge financial decision:
“If this was a court case, you’d have multiple meteorologists on the stand,” said Campbell H. Wallace, an attorney for the Professional Insurance Agents of New Jersey.
There is no court case. Insurance companies in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut have agreed to waive costly hurricane deductibles, which could have run in the millions of dollars along the three-state area.
Wallace said the insurance industry accepts the fact that the National Weather Service is “legally tasked” with making such determinations. He said meteorologists are judged by their peers and credibility is paramount to them.
The Wallace quote reminds me of another apparently ancillary fact about the Atlantic hurricane – the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which killed upwards of eight thousand people. Although meteorologists, both in the U.S. and in Cuba registered concerns about a storm headed for the Gulf of Mexico, the National Weather Bureau’s policy was to limit the use of the word “hurricane” in official correspondence, because it might engender widespread panic. On top of all of the other reasons for the high Galvestonian death toll (the misguided belief that hurricanes never struck that part of the Gulf, little way for ships to communicate observations from the middle of a storm, buildings that were particularly susceptible to storm damage) some of the blame must go, and has gone, to whomever made the decision that “hurricane” was just too dangerous a word for the American people.
In some ways, what is happening with insurance companies today is the flipside of what happened with the NWB and Galveston – in defining what counts as a hurricane, and what is “merely” a post-tropical cyclone (the two can be differentiated by as little as 1 mph difference in maximum wind speeds measured on the ground) the NOAA is saving – intentionally or no – thousands of people millions of dollars in total.
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.
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.
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.
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.