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Ron Kassimir Introduction: The Potential for Catastrophe THE CONTRIBUTIONS IN THIS SECTION MAKE CLEAR THAT WHILE certain forces o f nature have the potential to become catastrophic, a disaster can only be fully achieved through the playing out of hum an choices, political processes, and social structures. The pursuit of wealth and power, the setting of public priorities, the design of political insti­ tutions, and tolerance for inequality and discrimination, these authors argue, shape both the extent to which a potential disaster is realized and the highly uneven distribution of vulnerability to nature’s destruc­ tive capacity. W ith Katrina either standing in the foreground or lurking in the background of these essays, it is not surprising they present a dark view and critical tone. The authors reflect on the hum an forces that put the greatest risk on those already marginalized w hen disaster strikes, that allow the evasion of accountability, and that prevent lessons from being learned and so produce a sense of déjà vu w ith each subsequent disaster. From different perspectives, each author provides a social and political autopsy of Katrina and similar events, both recent and in the past.1 Yet, they also contend that, if hum an decisions and public poli­ cies greatly influence the extent and differential im pact of disasters, some man-made elem ents can also be deployed to prevent disasters or m itigate their effects. The papers take a historical perspective on the politics of disasters and show how the choices, institutions, and policies that create and distribute vulnerability change over time. At social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 727 the same tim e, they reflect on the current m om ent, especially in the United States, in which the political and economic winds of the past 30 years have blown in the direction of deregulation, privatization of criti­ cal infrastructure, and the vulnerability of public service institutions (for example, the Army Corps of Engineers) to both pork barrel politics and ideological preferences. Last, they all argue (some m ore explicitly than others) for changes in the way the US political system works and on whose behalf it works for. Major reforms are needed if we are to ever shake that déjà vu feeling w hen the forces of nature next threaten us, and especially the m ost vulnerable am ong us. As a social autopsy of Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and a social history of vulnerability to disasters in the Am erican South, Robert D. Bullard’s article explores the m ultiple ways in w hich pre­ existing race and class relations shaped the distribution of risk for individuals and com m unities. From a political econom y of race perspective, Bullard shows th at th e vastly differential effects of Katrina on New Orleans’African-American population was no random occurrence but the outcom e of a long history of discrim ination and social m arginalization. African-American com m unities were located in parts of the city both m ore environm entally dangerous and m ore vulnerable to flooding. At the same tim e, poorer households lacked cars th at proved to be the only way to escape K atrina’s force, and a public transportation system was barely in place to help those who did not own a car. Bullard argues that it is not surprising that communities under­ served in “norm al” times in term s of social services were bound to suffer disproportionately in the context of crisis. Bullard’s account thus focuses on how inequalities long predating the storm produced differ­ ential vulnerability to the power of nature. He also shows how these same inequalities unevenly distributed political clout in ways th at made evacuation so difficult for so m any (for example, a poor public transport system) and governm ent response so slow and skewed— from support for resettlem ent to the tem porary locating of victims in “toxic trailers.” Bullard calls attention to the im portance of com m unity 728 social research groups and self-help activities in a context where the vestiges of a social contract are stripped away, but emphasizes the centrality...


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pp. 727-732
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