Picture the forest from our favorite philosophical thought experiment—if a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it, does the tree make a sound? Some believe that, regardless of human presence, we can trust the tree to ‘thud’ when it hits the forest floor. Others argue that perception is central to the concept of sound, that human experience is key to the way humans define reality.
Now, consider a modern anthropological twist to the riddle: If a powerful hurricane floods a vast swath of land, but no one is around to get hurt, can we still call it a disaster?
The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 still looms over the collective American conscience. The storm and resulting flooding killed over 1,800 people and left millions without proper homes to return to. New Orleans’ geography makes it naturally vulnerable to hurricanes, but harm is unequally distributed along racial lines. The most vulnerable neighborhoods are situated deepest in the low-lying floodplain and are often low income and communities of color. The Lower Ninth Ward experienced flooding up to 20 feet deep, where the residents were 96 percent Black in 2005, although the city as a whole was 59 percent Black. Further north, though, whiter parts of the city lived on naturally protected hills, leading to shallower flooding and lesser destruction overall. The city was designed to place poorer communities of color on the front lines against powerful storms like Katrina, buffering the impacts for the white folks who lived uptown.
In the aftermath, with New Orleans facing over $160 billion in damage, political disputes hindered decision-making for recovery and relief. Evacuation proved logistically difficult and, again, amplified racial disparities. While the majority of white families fled at the first sign of danger, 60 percent of Black households lacked a personal vehicle to drive out of harm’s way. FEMA, our Federal Emergency Management Agency, didn’t deploy public buses for evacuation until six days after the storm hit New Orleans, slowly transporting car-less families to safety. Still, hundreds of Black flood victims were forced to walk up Highway 90 to the neighboring town of Gretna, where armed police officers and helicopters threatened violence and forced them to turn back.
Slow and too-little-too-late evacuation plans came under such harsh scrutiny that FEMA Director Michael D. Brown was forced to resign. The prolonged suffering following Katrina revealed that our nation was not prepared to recover from disasters of this magnitude, and that marginalized communities bear the brunt of its shortcomings.
In the 15 years since Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Harvey devastated the communities they reached. In the fall of 2012, Sandy bombarded the East Coast, killing nearly 170 people and creating at least $70 billion in damage. Densely populated areas in New York and New Jersey were hit hardest, where 14-foot storm surges drowned streets, subway lines, and beloved beaches. In the summer of 2017, Hurricane Harvey flooded a third of Houston, damaging 135,000 homes and leading to 88 deaths. The storm created at least $125 billion in damage, second only to Katrina in American recorded history. Climate change will only increase the frequency and intensity of these storms in the coming decades.
These disasters are connected by more than the erratic forces of nature. In each case, powerful natural phenomena prey upon the vulnerabilities that already exist in the communities they target. They expose the weaknesses in the infrastructure we deem “prepared,” the naïve human impulse to respond rather than prevent, and the environmental racism baked into urban planning.
Humans once attributed disasters to acts of God: unforeseeable, unavoidable, and unrelenting in their destruction. Powerful tsunamis, church-crumbling earthquakes, and deadly pathogens terrorized human civilization when they came, and only an almighty God could be responsible for the chaos that ensued.
Despite a general shift toward secularism, this flawed logic remains largely intact today. We see hurricanes and earthquakes as acts of nature, still just as unforeseeable, inescapable, and indiscriminate in their destructive wrath. Humans have developed better technologies to predict and respond when disaster strikes. Yet we still speak as if our communities exist at the whims of the natural phenomena that plague our home planet—as if there is simply nothing that we can do to stop them.
But a growing body of scholarship suggests that’s not true at all. Disasters as we know them are inherently defined by the loss of human lives, valued infrastructure, and community wellbeing. Still, we build cities that put these things at risk. We prioritize human convenience, economic growth, and structural attempts to conquer our environments. In doing so, we create a network of vulnerabilities which make us more susceptible to natural phenomena that can become disasters. Further, we divert the worst impacts to socially vulnerable communities. Disaster is the climactic culmination of our existing systems of oppression, injustice, and hubris.
Disaster, then, stems from a failure to design cities and infrastructure with respect for the environments they occupy. It is a byproduct of modern society’s pace, convenience, and economically driven paradigm for development. It’s a burden our society creates, then diverts to already marginalized communities.
The storm isn’t the disaster. It’s the preexisting cracks in our infrastructure, our systems of inequality, and our unwillingness to respect our environments that allow hurricanes and infectious diseases to become disasters.
The Dutch have embraced this paradigm of human-made disaster, building resilience into cities for decades. The majority of the Netherlands sits along or below sea level, its geography carved by coast-bound rivers and their many tributaries. These features make the Netherlands particularly vulnerable to flooding, storm surge, and sea level rise. The Dutch government spends over a billion dollars per year on flood infrastructure, paving the global path toward robust adaptation, disaster mitigation, and water management solutions. Today, the face of Dutch water solutions is that of a man named Henk Ovink. A renowned flood expert, special envoy to the United Nations, and world’s only “global water ambassador,” Ovink is an international sensation in the world of water management. He lives by the notion that disaster is human-made and travels the world to “preach the gospel” of prevention.
The world is watching as Ovink spearheads the movement to build resilience into Dutch cities. First approved and implemented in 2006, his “Room for the River” program aims to create space for the country’s natural river-driven geography to minimize vulnerability to people. The program is an assortment of several development projects and plans for land-use reform, all founded upon the virtue of building with nature. The program designs infrastructure to meet urban societal needs without interfering with natural processes or putting communities at risk of disaster.
First and foremost, the program widened river channels and surrounding floodplains to give stormwater buffer space to fill before spilling out onto the community. The program also subsidized the relocation of farmers and families living in the most vulnerable riverside regions of the floodplain. Of course, relocating communities is a complicated, sensitive, and sometimes unjust process. It took years of tearful negotiation before the floodplain was fully evacuated, but the overarching sentiment among prior residents appears to be one of understanding, fairness, and opportunity.
In addition, the program birthed one massive, $500 million storm surge barrier where the Rhine River meets the sea in Rotterdam to protect the city from the worst of storms. Other modified dyke systems and flood channels were constructed to protect residential areas from water as second-level reinforcements for the widened river. Ultimately, the program sets a high standard for integrating environmental needs, community safety, and climate adaptation into urban design, acting as a valuable model for cities across the globe.
As the world looks to the Dutch to build our own resilient futures, Ovink reminds us that the Netherlands has not always been immune to flooding disasters. In the winter of 1953, the Netherlands endured their own devastating hurricane. Prior to 1953, the country’s primary defense against flooding was a series of levees and dykes initially built in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Dutch relied on these dated, wall-like structures as their only prevention strategy, heightening and reinforcing them over time. But when the great 1953 storm hit, the levees and dykes collapsed. Warnings were issued by radio in the middle of the night, but most people were asleep in their beds when the water arrived. Over 1,800 people were killed and 200,000 houses destroyed. To this day, the 1953 flood is remembered as the most destructive disaster in Dutch history.
In the decades that followed, the Dutch learned from the failures of the dyke system and used disaster as an opportunity to rebuild smarter. Just weeks after the flood, a Delta Committee composed of the best Dutch civil engineers was formed to inhibit future large floods. Prevention, proactivity, and resilience came to dominate the country’s attitude toward disaster, laying the groundwork for innovative, disaster-resilient planning.
The country’s commitment to building smarter and working with nature has paid off. In the 67 years since the great 1953 disaster, not a single person in the Netherlands has died due to flood.
The US’s approach to disaster is entirely different from the Netherlands’ paradigm of prevention. The American approach favors responding to the aftermath of disaster rather than forward-thinking adaptation, leaving already marginalized communities to bear the weight of existing urban injustice. FEMA is notoriously criticized after any and all disasters in the US, often for inadequate funding, slow response, or the wrong relief measures entirely. Katrina and the turmoil that followed completely exposed the flaws in FEMA’s priorities while distributing aid.
FEMA allocates funds for disaster-recovering cities to rebuild themselves exactly as they were prior to disaster, replicating vulnerable infrastructure in vulnerable places without adaptation. Homes and infrastructure are not rebuilt stronger, communities are not moved out of floodplains, and the disproportionate burden on low-income communities and communities of color is not lifted. While FEMA should be held accountable for its responsibility to aid recovering communities effectively, the American disaster paradigm places too much responsibility in the hands of post-disaster relief agencies to begin with.
We know that cities like New Orleans are vulnerable to hurricanes and floods. Yet even as disastrous events reveal precisely the cracks, injustices, and mistakes built into our current mitigation strategies, we’ve failed to prepare those cities for future storms.
Now, in April 2020, we’re living in the chaos of a different type of storm. The coronavirus has flooded the planet with fever, fear, death, and grief all at once. Over 200,000 people have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, as the global tally of confirmed cases exceeds 3 million (and counting). Our global economy has effectively shut down as hospitals run out of beds and the masses scramble to protect their health.
The US is now the global epicenter of the virus, and a haze of uncertainty has descended upon marginalized communities as they struggle to avoid infection. Folks with compromised immune systems and pre-existing respiratory conditions are most vulnerable to the virus, amplifying existing health disparities along racial lines. Low income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, already disproportionately affected by poor air quality and asthma due to unjust environmental planning, are more susceptible to the virus. These folks are more likely to depend on continuous income from in-person work and live in densely populated neighborhoods, making social distancing difficult and increasing the risk of exposure. In Chicago, Black people make up only 30 percent of the population, but nearly 70 percent of the city’s coronavirus deaths.
The case of the current pandemic is different in that infectious disease is not inherently tied to geographic location—some places are more vulnerable than others, but the virus has transcended physical boundaries of all kinds. While we can’t predict when an unseen pathogen will surface and begin to spread, scientists and public health officials knew a pandemic like this was coming. A new infectious disease has emerged somewhere in the world every year for the past three decades (SARS in 2002, H1N1 in 2009, and Ebola in 2014, to name a few). The recent centennial of the 1918 Spanish flu, which wiped out nearly 5 percent of the world’s population, only heightened fears of an impending crisis. Ed Yong of The Atlantic even predicted the disastrous impact of the “next plague,” right down to the scarcity of ventilators and how Trump’s “tendency to tweet rashly, delegitimize legitimate sources of information, and readily buy into conspiracy theories” would be disastrous. Rather than ramping up public health measures and bolstering existing healthcare facilities given the likelihood of a pandemic, public health programs remained underfunded, underattended, and underprioritized. Supply chains for life-saving medical supplies were fragile, and average hospital preparedness remained a low priority. Like we've failed to protect New Orleans from inevitable hurricanes, we've failed to prepare public health programs and our broader healthcare system for a contagion of this magnitude.
The American attitude and approach to disaster management requires fundamental reform, beginning with the way we understand how our social conditions enable disasters like Katrina and COVID-19. Disasters can no longer be reduced to supreme acts of God or nature.
They are acts of society, and they are not natural at all.
Like the Dutch in the aftermath of the 1953 flood, we have reached a crucial moment in choosing our nation’s future. Following their lead, we must use powerful disasters like Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and COVID-19 to shift our cultural relationship with our environment and promote resilient planning. We can build cities that are resistant to disaster. We can reform our healthcare system to protect us from whatever pathogen comes next. But first, we must look inward at our flawed institutional value systems: our acceptance of environmental racism in city planning, our post-hoc approach to disaster management, and our unwillingness to coexist with the natural ecologies that surround us.
As climate change fuels environmental chaos, we can’t stop the storms from coming. But if we shift how we understand disasters and hold ourselves accountable for their underlying causes, we can learn to coexist with our natural vulnerabilities. In order to promote lasting, robust disaster mitigation efforts in American cities, we must look inward and uproot these structures which make us vulnerable to disasters. In the end, it’s our choice.
MAYA GLICKSMAN B’20 is working on her own resilience.