Thursday, August 31, 2006

Katrina and social vulnerability: Disaster is never natural

Alan Chin's photo of a Katrina victim in a flag

Editor's note: This is the first half of a two-part series marking the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This series is based on an editorial that appeared earlier this week on Jurist Forum.

Hurricane Katrina broke America’s collective heart. No previous natural disaster in the nation’s history inflicted a grimmer toll. The legendary city of New Orleans all but sank when its levees failed and the resulting storm surge drowned much of the city and many of its feeblest, most vulnerable residents. Although Katrina exposed flaws in virtually every aspect of disaster management at every level of government in the United States, the magnitude and senselessness of the loss serve to indict American society for its callous disregard of social vulnerability.

“The moral test of government,” said Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, “is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Arnold v. Arizona Dep’t of Health Servs., 160 Ariz. 593, 775 P.2d 521, 537 (1989) (quoting Humphrey). The cloud of natural disaster puts government to an extreme test of its ability to protect those citizens who dwell in the dawn, the twilight, and the shadows of life. As Katrina demonstrated, social vulnerability profoundly affects the ability of governments to prepare for, respond to, mitigate, and recover from natural disasters.

Katrina victim in flagNatural disaster supposedly does not discriminate; it putatively strikes everyone in its path, without regard to race, class, age, sex, or disability. In other words, “poverty is hierarchic, smog is democratic.” Scott Frickel, Our Toxic Gumbo: Recipe for a Politics of Environmental Knowledge (Oct. 6, 2005) (quoting Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Toward a New Modernity 36 (1986)). Closer examination of the interplay between natural and social factors at work in any disaster, however, belies this assumption. Disaster does not so much erase as expose social vulnerabilities within the society it strikes. Although “‘[n]atural disasters’ such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods are sometimes viewed as ‘great social equalizers” in the sense that “they strike unpredictably and at random, affecting black and white, rich and poor, sick and well alike,” Katrina bluntly demonstrated that “the harms are not visited randomly or equally in our society.” Center for Progressive Reform, An Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 34 (2005).

Disasters are never strictly “natural.” Catastrophic losses invariably stem from social as well as environmental factors. Around the world, social injustice contributes so heavily to the incidence and intensity of natural disasters that the quest for domestic and global equality may be rightfully regarded as a valuable tool for refining the law’s approach to disaster preparedness, response, mitigation, compensation, and rebuilding.

Next: Susceptibility and resilience.

Editor's note: The picture at the top of this post is the copyrighted work of Alan Chin. It first appeared in a heartbreaking gallery of Alan's work posted at BAGnewsNotes. I have included the more famous image of the same Katrina victim in order to highlight what I regard as the artistic superiority of Alan's work, which I had not seen until today. Information on purchasing any of Alan Chin's photographic work is available through Sasha Wolf Photographs. I also recommend that Jurisdynamics readers visit Alan's portfolio and his Kosovo diary. His work is artistically beautiful, emotionally heartbreaking, and spiritually devastating.


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