- Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South: Two Centuries of Catastrophe, Risk, and Resilience ed. by Cindy Ermus
The argument that humans are at least culpable if not largely responsible for ostensibly natural disasters is at least as old as environmental history. This insight undergirds the scholarship in Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South: Two Centuries of Catastrophe, Risk, and Resilience, but the volume's authors go beyond rehashing an older observation. In surveying more than two centuries of human-environment interactions in the U.S. Gulf South and the Greater Caribbean Basin, the contributors build on earlier scholarship not only by revealing their subjects' human dimensions but also by demonstrating how catastrophic events expose socioeconomic inequalities and render visible the forces—environmental, institutional, and otherwise—that conspire to place humans in harm's way. In so doing, they widen the topical, temporal, and [End Page 145] geographic frames through which academics have traditionally examined disaster events.
Indeed, these authors understand environmental disasters as more than brief, catastrophic moments. As Roberto E. Barrios and Kevin Fox Gotham each argue, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina resulted from decisions made centuries before, and years after, the swirling system made landfall in Louisiana. Gotham calls on the insights of "risk-society theorists" to demonstrate that both poor infrastructure and a predilection to protect economic interests at the expense of at-risk populations created vulnerabilities (p. 164). For Barrios, a history of economic segregation in tandem with lopsided recovery efforts placed a disproportionate burden on the city's poor. Barrios uses sociological theory and interviews with local residents to show how, in the Lower Ninth Ward, spatial vulnerabilities were not only socially produced but also "politically-ecologically emergent," a concept that recognizes both human and material agency in generating risk (p. 133). Similarly, Christopher M. Church understands the destruction caused by Florida's 1928 hurricane as a product of the longer history of the growth of the "Sugar Kingdom" in Florida and the Greater Caribbean Basin, which created ecological and economic conditions that exacerbated the dangers and losses created by this storm.
In addition to widening the chronology and geography of disaster studies, the volume also expands the field's topical scope. Cindy Ermus and Abraham H. Gibson together reflect on whether invasive species constitute environmental disasters. While they admit that pigs, pythons, and other imported flora and fauna do not immediately threaten human life, their insistence that "historians of disaster might be missing an opportunity" by focusing on the "nonbiological" reveals new ways humans are complicit in generating ecological risk (pp. 104, 103). Similarly, Urmi Engineer Willoughby shows how disease outbreaks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could be the purview of disaster scholars. She argues that Americans' desire to overcome yellow fever in the name of empire created a "'military-medical complex'" that represents, in essence, the technocratic impulse manifest (p. 53). By demonstrating how the U.S. Army imported eradication techniques from Central America and the Caribbean, Willoughby situates the bacteriological revolution in the context of American empire and demonstrates the merits of melding disaster and disease studies.
The idea that a disaster's significance cannot be understood apart from existing power dynamics is another established insight that these scholars imbue with new significance. Greg O'Brien views the New Orleans flood of 1849 not only as indicative of power relationships but also as a crisis that presented an opportunity to challenge existing power structures. Combing through local papers, O'Brien finds that residents effectively marshaled satire to express outrage at city administrators. Their outcry was important, he argues, as the "mockery … forced city leaders to respond, even if only to defend their inaction" (p. 17). In a telling counternarrative, though, Andy Horowitz shows how the recovery effort during the Galveston storm of 1900 further disadvantaged a marginalized group. Fear of black looting, encouraged by baseless allegations, increased the vigilante policing of African Americans...