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Joel Towers Introduction: What “Really” Happens When Disasters Happen: Preparations and Responses THIS SECTION EXPLORES HOW COMMUNITIES AND INDIVIDUALS PREPARE for, and respond to, disasters and the extent to w hich they do that directly, indirectly or subconsciously By asking, or perhaps stating “W hat ‘Really’ Happens W hen Disasters Happen,” Erwann MichelKerjan , Elliot Aronson, Enrico L. Quarantelli, and Howard Kunreuther unpack the personal and political calculus of disaster preparation and response. To begin, however, it may be of some use to attem pt to clarify w hat may have been m eant by the presence of those postm odern quota­ tion marks surrounding “Really” in the session title. W hat is it about reality in the context of disasters that promises a socially constructed encounter? A shifting and provisional reality in relation to disasters is especially destabilizing given that the brute force of m ost disasters is, presumably, powerful enough to push aside preoccupations w ith posi­ tivist narratives. Some other force m ust clearly be at play. I would argue, and the essays th at follow m ake clear, th at the tem poral and social geography of risk is shifting. Risk, and the hum an capacity to manage it, conditions reality to a significant enough degree social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 817 as to raise critical questions about w hat is “really” happening—even amid the destruction left in the wake of disaster. Risk defines both the limits of preparation and the character of response to disaster. And yet risk itself is a shifting com m odity whose boundaries are constantly rew ritten as a result of the dynamic relationship among m arkets, soci­ ety, and the natural environm ent. This relationship is perhaps best exemplified by the phenom ena know as the “hundred-year storm.” The hundred-year storm is a benchm ark not only in the m apping of risk and therefore the positioning of all sorts of infrastructure and build­ ings but a psychological m ilestone that sets hum an consideration of risk in a tem poral landscape well beyond average hum an life expec­ tancy. It is the perceived outsized improbability of hundred-year storm events—the perceived stability of climate w ithin the “know n” tem po­ ral dimensions of hum an life that allows for large-scale infrastructure investments and hum an settlem ents in territories ofrisk. W hen disaster strikes these territories of risk communities, politicians, and individu­ als can be comforted by the random and awesome brutality of nature. Many interesting questions arise, however, w hen the hundredyear storm begins to occur w ith greater frequency as a result of the combined effects of climate change and increased sea levels. In other words, global warm ing has the ability to shift the tem poral framework on which m any personal and political decisions are predicated by alter­ ing the landscape of risk. The M etropolitan East Coast Assessment, a regional com ponent of the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (2000), indicates that by the end of this century “storm surges equivalent to one hundred year floods would recur every thirty-three years on average.” The ques­ tion then shifts to w hat happens w hen risk horizons are foreshortened? W hat is altered w hen society can no longer blam e nature alone for disasters? How will preparations for disasters and responses to them change? The following papers make significant headway in addressing these and other questions while considering “W hat ‘Really’ Happens W hen Disasters Happen.’ 818 social research ...


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