Flashback Friday.

The AP has an interesting website about wildfires from 2002 to 2006. Each year, most wildfires occurred west of the Continental Divide:

Many of these areas are forested. Others are desert or shortgrass prairie:

There are a lot of reasons for wildfires–climate and ecology, periodic droughts, humans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that in the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, the “vast majority” of wildfires are due to human activity. Many scientists expect climate change to increase wildfires.

Many wildfires affect land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. For most of the 1900s, the BLM had a policy of total fire suppression to protect valuable timber and private property.

Occasional burns were part of forest ecology. Fires came through, burning forest litter relatively quickly, then moving on or dying out. Healthy taller trees were generally unaffected; their branches were often out of the reach of flames and bark provided protection. Usually the fire moved on before trees had ignited. And some types of seeds required exposure to a fire to sprout.

Complete fire suppression allowed leaves, pine needles, brush, fallen branches, etc., to build up. Wildfires then became more intense and destructive: they were hotter, flames reached higher, and thicker layers of forest litter meant the fire lingered longer.

As a result, an uncontrolled wildfire was often more destructive. Trees were more likely to burn or to smolder and reignite a fire several days later. Hotter fires with higher flames are more dangerous to fight, and can also more easily jump naturally-occurring or artificial firebreaks. They may burn a larger area than they would otherwise, and thus do more of the damage that total fire suppression policies were supposed to prevent.

In the last few decades the BLM has recognized the importance of occasional fires in forest ecology. Fires are no longer seen as inherently bad. In some areas “controlled burns” are set to burn up some of the dry underbrush and mimic the effects of naturally-occurring fires.

But it’s not easy to undo decades of fire suppression. A controlled burn sometimes turns out to be hard to control, especially with such a buildup of forest litter. Property owners often oppose controlled burns because they fear the possibility of one getting out of hand. So the policy of fire suppression has in many ways backed forest managers into a corner: it led to changes in forests that make it difficult to change course now, even though doing so might reduce the destructive effects of wildfires when they do occur.

Given this, I’m always interested when wildfires are described as “natural disasters.” What makes something a natural disaster? The term implies a destructive situation that is not human-caused but rather emerges from “the environment.” As the case of wildfires shows, the situation is often more complex than this, because what appear to be “natural” processes are often affected by humans… and because we are, of course, part of the environment, despite the tendency to think of human societies and “nature” as separate entities.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Partly because the city had just begun to recovery from Hurricane Katrina when the Great Recession began, it suffered less job loss relative to its pre-recession state and GDP actually grew 3.9% between 2008 and 2011. No other southern metropolitan area cracked 2% in the same period.

Charles Davidson, writing for EconSouth, offers the following evidence of New Orleans’ resilience in the face of the Great Recession. Chart 1 shows that it lost a smaller percentage of its jobs than the U.S. as a whole.

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This is even more significant as it looks, as New Orleans had been in economic decline for decades before Katrina.  Davidson reports that “the economy in New Orleans has reversed decades of decline and outperformed the nation and other southern metropolitan areas.  Consider: the job growth in New Orleans shown in Chart 2 may not look impressive, but compare it to the extraordinary declines of its neighbors.

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Thanks to greater diversification of its economy, record tourism, and rising investment money, the city may be setting itself up for a revival.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Flashback Friday.

When tourists returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there was a new site to see: disaster.  Suddenly — in addition to going on a Ghost Tour, visiting the Backstreet Cultural Museum, and lunching at Dooky Chase’s — one could see the devastation heaped upon the Lower Ninth Ward.  Buses full of strangers with cameras were rumbling through the neighborhood as it tried to get back on its feet.

A sociology major at  Michigan State University, Kiara C., sent along this photograph of a homemade sign propped up in the Lower Ninth, shaming visitors for what sociologists call “disaster tourism.”

(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com; found here)

Disaster tourism is criticized for objectifying the suffering of others.  Imagine having lost loved ones and seen your house nearly destroyed. After a year out of town, you’re in your nastiest clothes, mucking sludge out of your house, fearful that the money will run out before you can get the house — the house your grandmother bought and passed down to you through your mother — put back together.

Imagine that — as you push a wheelbarrow out into the sunlight, blink as you adjust to the brightness, and push your hair off your forehead, leaving a smudge of toxic mud — a bus full of cameras flash at you, taking photographs of your trauma, effort, and fear.  And then they take that photo back to their cozy, dry home and show it to their friends, who ooh and aah about how cool it was that they got to see the aftermath of the flood.

The person who made this sign… this is what they may have been feeling.

Originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

To mourn, commemorate, and celebrate the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  Photographer Ted Jackson returned to the site of some of his most powerful photographs, re-taking them to reveal the progress, or lack of progress, of the past nine years.

You can see them all at nola.com; I’ve pulled out three that speak to the uneven recovery that I see when I visit.

In this first photo, residents struggle to keep their heads above water by balancing on the porch railing of a home in the Lower 9th Ward, what was once a vibrant working class, almost entirely African American neighborhood. Today, the home remains dilapidated, as did one-in-four homes in New Orleans as of 2010.

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In the first photo of this second set, a man delivers fresh water to people stranded in the BW Cooper Housing Development, better known as the Calliope Projects.  Today, the housing development is awaiting demolition, having been mostly empty since 2005.  Some suspect that closing these buildings was an excuse to make it difficult or impossible for some poor, black residents to return.

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This set of homes is  located in an upper-income part of the city.  The neighborhood, called Lakeview, suffered some of the worst flooding, 8 to 10 feet and more; it has recovered very well.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

When Hurricane Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans and flooded 85% of the city, 100,000 people were left homeless. Disproportionately, these were the poor and black residents of New Orleans. This same population faced more hurdles to returning than their wealthier and whiter counterparts thanks to the effects of poverty, but also choices made by policymakers and politicians — some would say made deliberately — that reduced the black population of the city.

With them went many of the practitioners of voodoo, a faith with its origins in the merging of West African belief systems and Catholicism.  At Newsweek, Stacey Anderson writes that locals claim that the voodoo community was 2,500 to 3,000 people strong before Katrina, but after that number was reduced to around 300.

The result has been a bridging of different voodoo traditions and communities. Prior to the storm, celebrations and ceremonies were race segregated and those who adhered to Haitian- and New Orleans-style voodoo kept their distance.  After the storm, with their numbers decimated, they could no longer sustain the in-groups and out-groups they once had.  Voodoo practitioners forged bonds across prior divides.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The fourth hurricane of this year’s season will be named Dolly and that might be a problem.

Dmitriy T.C. sent in a link to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using experiments, the study found that people believe that hurricanes with female names will be less deadly than those with male names.

No, not because hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Because, sexism. People underestimate the power of Victoria vs. Victor, Christina vs. Christopher, Alexandra vs. Alexander.

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Does this translate into a higher death toll due to a failure to evacuate?  That we don’t know. Ed Yong at National Geographic is skeptical The researchers compared the death tolls of hurricanes with female versus male names but were unable to come up with a statistically significant difference.  It may be because of a small sample size; they only started giving male names to hurricanes in 1979.  (The researchers contest Yong’s critique here.)

Hurricane season is upon us and, according to nola.com, this year’s hurricane names will be named Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine, Kyle, Laura, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky and Wilfred.

Maybe, to be safe, we should perhaps re-work this season’s names. I recommend Aggressor, Butch, Crowbar, Death, Evisceration, Fear, Gore, Hannibal, Ice Pick, Juggernaut, Killer, Laceration, Measles, Nerve Damage, Oblivion, Pain, Redrum, Scabies, Torture, Voluminous Agony, and Woe.

Photo: Hurricane Isabel, as seen from space. Credit: Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory , Johnson Space Center. Color-corrected by yours truly.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Like many people, I’ve been following news about the crash landing in San Francisco. It’s a frightening reminder of the risks that come with air travel, but an uplifting one thanks to the small number of casualties.  The Mayor of San Francisco was quoted saying: “We’re lucky we have this many survivors.”  And the Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department said that it was “nothing short of a miracle…”  At CNN, after mentioning the two confirmed fatalities, the reporter writes, “Somehow, 305 others survived.” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wrote that it was a “serious moment to give thanks.”  But to whom?

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There’s a kind of person who is trained to maximize survival in the case of a plane crash: the flight attendant.  Airlines don’t advertise the intense training their flight attendants receive because it reminds potential passengers that air travel is risky.  As a result, most people seriously underestimate the skills flight attendants bring on board and the dedication they have to the safety of their passengers.

Flight attendants have to learn hundreds of regulations and know the safety features of all of the aircraft in their airline’s fleet. They must know how to evacuate the plane on land or sea within 90 seconds; fight fires 35,000 feet in the air; keep a heart attack or stroke victim alive; calm an anxious, aggressive, or mentally ill passenger; respond to hijackings and terrorist attacks; and ensure group survival in the jungle, sea, desert, or arctic.

It isn’t just book learning; they train in “live fire pits” and “ditching pools.”As one flight attendant once said:

I don’t think of myself as a sex symbol or a servant. I think of myself as somebody who knows how to open the door of a 747 in the dark, upside down and in the water (source).

This is why I’m surprised to see almost no discussion of the flight attendants’ role in this “miracle.” Consider the top five news stories on Google at the time I’m writing: CNNFoxCBS, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today.  These articles use passive language to describe the evacuation: “slides had deployed”; all passengers “managed to get off.”  When the cabin crew are mentioned, they appear alongside and equivalent to the passengers: the crash forced “dozens of frightened passengers and crew to scamper from the heavily damaged aircraft”; “passengers and crew were being treated” at local hospitals.

Only one of these five stories, at Fox, acknowledges that the 16 cabin crew members worked through the crash and its aftermath.  The story mentions that, while passengers who could were fleeing the plane, crew remained behind to help people who were trapped, slashing seat belts with knives supplied by police officers on the ground.  The plane was going up in flames; they risked their lives to save others.

I don’t know what the flight attendants on this plane did or didn’t do to minimize injuries or save lives, but I would like to know.  Instead, they are invisible in these news stories as workers, allowing readers and future passengers to remain ignorant of the skills and dedication they bring to their work.

Cross-posted at JezebelPolicyMic, Huffington Post, and BlogHer.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Yesterday the Pew Research Center released data on the news coverage of Typhoon Haiyan — a disaster that has killed at least 4,000 people — and the bungled Obamacare website roll-out.  Comparing 20 hours of news coverage over four major U.S. channels, they found dramatic differences.  The data below shows the hours and minutes spent on each topic at each channel (red = Obamacare, yellow = the typhoon).

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First, the two partisan channels (Fox News and MSNBC) gave more time to Obamacare than the typhoon.  On MSNBC, there was four times as much coverage of Obamacare.  On Fox, there as a stunning 80 times as much coverage.  Al Jazeera America and CNN spent significantly more time on the typhoon, likely reflecting their more global focus and less of an ideological mission.

The channels also differed in how much time they spent on facts/reporting versus opinion/commentary.  Check it out:

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While most all of us sometimes lazily refer to “the media” as if it’s a homogeneous thing, it’s important to remember that our perceptions of reality are strongly shaped by which media we consume.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.