- Recovering Inequality: Hurricane Katrina, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and the Aftermath of Disaster by Steve Kroll-Smith
By Steve Kroll-Smith
University of Texas Press, 2018, 216 pp., https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/kroll-smithrecovering-inequality
In the last year alone, the United States has watched mudslides engulf Montecito, Hurricane Florence flood the Carolinas, Hurricane Michael devastate the Gulf coast, wildfires scorch Paradise, tornados tear through Alabama, and floods swallow large swaths of Nebraska and Iowa—and these storms are just the most well-known. Hundreds of other natural disasters have swept through communities across the United States, killing residents and costing millions in damages. In fact, since 2000, 99.7 percent of U.S. counties have experienced at least one natural disaster, resulting in thousands of deaths and costing billions. Moreover, research repeatedly shows that the devastation does not stop when the storms die down. Recovery aid creates an aftershock of sorts, whereby inequity is exacerbated and marginalized populations suffer cascading setbacks (Howell and Elliott 2018).
Since the Fall of 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the surmounting cost of these disasters and their propensity to aggravate inequity has gained increased attention in the news media and congressional hearings (e.g., Hersher and Benincasa 2019; U.S. House of Representatives 2019). As is often the case, these conversations expose the specifics of the latest disasters but lack vital historical prospective. It is into this void that Steve Kroll-Smith's Recovering Inequality: Hurricane Katrina, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and the Aftermath of Disaster masterfully weaves a compelling sociohistorical narrative.
Echoing W.E.B. DuBois' ingenious interdisciplinary combinations of poetry, history, quotes, and statistics, Kroll-Smith combines fictional renderings, newspaper clippings, policy decisions, and first-hand descriptions with rhythmic prose to create a page-turning analysis of the similarities and differences between two iconic U.S. disasters: the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and Hurricane Katrina. A century apart, these two catastrophes devastated their respective cities, galvanized collective goodwill while simultaneously evoking fears of looters and rioters, distributed aid based on moralistic assessments of residents' worthiness, and reinforced entrenched inequities with their development projects. Retelling the story of these two disasters side by side, Kroll-Smith is able to illuminate that our failures to respond swiftly and justly after tragedies is not just an isolated occurrence but the pattern. Explicitly making these connections enables Kroll-Smith to draw conclusions as to why exactly these inequities persist.
Pulling from a wide variety of first and secondhand accounts, Kroll-Smith carefully curates passages about both disasters to help illuminate their similarities. Beginning with the disasters themselves, Kroll-Smith familiarizes the modern reader with the destruction caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and demonstrates its parallels to Hurricane Katrina. He discusses how, in the immediate aftermath, residents in both cities came together and, in both places, how the news media depicted a different story—one of chaos, looting, rioting, and even rape. Uncannily similar, these news stories and later retractions due to falsification begin to illuminate Kroll-Smith's overarching thesis: the "market logic" of a divided and unequal city has and continues to drive U.S. urban development before, during, and after disasters.
Kroll-Smith builds his case by discussing how recovery aid was distributed. In both cities, aid was allocated based on moralistic assessments of who was worthy of the assistance. For example, in San Francisco organizations used evidence of "immorality"—laziness, vicious habits, drunkenness, and unemployment—to determine whether or not households should receive aid and whether they required surveillance. Unsurprisingly, most of these evaluations were based on racial and class stereotypes, so the system privileged White middle and upper class residents and left their Chinese and lower class counterparts without needed assistance.
Deliberately juxtaposing the rationales and experiences of receiving aid after the earthquake to those after Katrina, Kroll-Smith not only illustrates their similarities but also brings into sharp focus the absurdity of our contemporary processes. Entrenched in contemporary stereotypes and dominant logics, it is easier to look...