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May. 18 2010 - 1:17 pm | 529 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

The oil spill and Hurricane Katrina: ‘Natural disasters’?

What is a “natural disaster”? The question is important, not least because arbitrary, imponderable “nature” wreaking havoc on humans and our fragile civilizations is such an archetypal predicament.

Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off and civilization begins. And that’s confusing.

Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faulty floodwalls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.

Yet there is a widespread tendency to elide these distinctions, in the media and society. New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt took this up on Sunday, in response to a petition from Levees.org asking for an official NYT style change, to call the New Orleans flood a “man-made disaster.” (Ironically, the petition was sent in response to this article, which calls the oil spill a “natural disaster.”) Hoyt was sympathetic, but no style change is forthcoming:

However you want to define what happened in that city, the hurricane certainly was a natural disaster for residents further east, along the Mississippi coast.

But in other articles, The Times has said Katrina “devastated” New Orleans, and used other similar language. Philip Corbett, the standards editor, said, “We have repeatedly in our coverage over years dealt in great detail with all the factors that led to the catastrophe in New Orleans.” Readers, he said, “will understand you are talking about the whole event: the natural disaster that was the hurricane and the various problems, man-made, and the government response that exacerbated the problems.”

Sounds reasonable, right? The problem is, when “Katrina” becomes a journalistic shorthand for all those problems (institutional, political, social, environmental, on top of basic stuff like bad floodwalls) it’s easy to lose sight of what really happened. Journalists are nothing if not sloppy when it comes to complex problems, and in this case the underlying story is one of deep institutional dysfunction, an abandonment of basic government and societal accountability. That is, something that lies outside the comfort zone of many journalists, especially those covering day-to-day politics. The plain fact is that neither the government (for obvious reasons) nor the media (for less obvious ones) has ever embraced the “man-made disaster” idea, despite the evidence.

But the New York Times stylebook is not the best venue to have this fight. It would be a low-level bureaucratic fix to what is, in essence, a huge paradigm shift (and something that actually deserves the use of this over-used term). It’s now more important than ever to identify the human part of the equation in natural disasters – and to make an explicit point of identifying it.

When I was writing a Katrina book along with Mark Schleifstein (who is now reporting on the oil spill), I interviewed a computer scientist named Alan Wexelblat who dabbled in thinking about disasters. His message was, essentially, we don’t have a clue about the ways our technologies interact with nature. We don’t think strategically about that. And as those interactions and feedbacks grow more complex, this is going to lead to a lot more stuff blowing up, collapsing, and imploding.

The term “natural disaster” may not be obsolete – we’ve still got tsunamis and volcanic eruptions to deal with – its usefulness is in sharp decline. The number of catastrophes that it accurately describes is shrinking. But our collective thinking – amplified by the media – is to lump everything together in a way that tends to strip the human agency out of what’s really happening. This is quite useful for those who screwed up. But it’s very dangerous.


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  1. collapse expand

    In the case of the levees, yes, it’s quite useful to the Army Corps of Engineers when the media is vague regarding the root cause of the New Orleans flooding. (The Corps was found responsible by a federal judge in Jan 2008.)

    And yes it’s dangerous for most of us since 55% of American people lives in counties protected by levees.

    Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.org

  2. collapse expand

    Carelessness with language and deliberate obfuscation are manmade disasters. And then the words are made flesh and dwell among us.

  3. collapse expand

    I absolutely concur with Ms. Rosenthal! And growing up in Sacramento I never knew how vulnerable we were/are to levee failures there that would probably be worse than NOLA’s.

    Paul Harris
    Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”

  4. collapse expand

    Small things can matter a great deal. The way we talk about something both reflects and affects the way we think of it. You make the larger point yourself that Katrina shorthand covers a lot besides just the weather event; but (1) the NYT is so widely read that their style guidelines are not such a small matter, and (2) even if it’s not an overarching solution addressing deep institutional dysfunction and abrogation of societal responsibility, a “low-level bureaucratic fix” as simple as the way we refer to the catastrophe here has an impact.

    No one is asking that the flooding in Mississippi be described as anything other than a natural disaster. But, when it comes to discussing what happened in the city of New Orleans (along with the suburb of Chalmette), a distinction must be made. Otherwise we come away having learned nothing from a pre-eminently teachable event.

    The distinction is this: there was no effort to protect the Mississippi Gulf Coast from storm surge coming ashore; this is evident to anyone driving along U.S. Hwy 90. In contrast, New Orleans was (supposed to be) protected from storm surge. It’s worth noting that federal levees held in neighboring Jefferson Parish. The flooding there was due to Jefferson’s leaders’ decision not to operate their drainage pumps. Even so, because they only had to deal with rain, the flooding was minor in comparison to the catastrophe in New Orleans, which allowed the full storm surge into the city.

    The editorial policy matters in as influential a venue as the New York Times. Accurate writing would distinguish the avoidable flooding in New Orleans from the unavoidable flooding in Mississippi. And how we refer to things makes a difference in our thinking. Are Democrats “liberals” or “progressives”? When a very wealthy person dies, does he (or she) pay “estate tax” or “death tax”?

    By insisting on referring accurately and truthfully to the flooding of New Orleans as a catastrophic engineering failure, the New York Times could make an impact on attitudes that would keep the pressure on the Corps of Engineers to do it right this time. Even after everything that happened, the Corps is pushing a second-rate plan it knows won’t provide the best flood protection for the city. Keeping the heat on in every way possible, large and small, is appropriate and necessary.

  5. collapse expand

    John,
    On Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, everyone spoke of the financial meltdown of the past few years as a “perfect storm” — a term meant to deflect blame. It’s very much parallel to blaming the flooding in New Orleans on a “natural disaster” rather than deeply flawed human behavior. The way we say things really matters. Thanks.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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