Tag Archives: disaster

Initial Responses to the 9/11 Attacks in New York

Mexico filmmaker Pablo Fulgueira happened to be traveling in New York shortly after the attack of 9/11. He took the opportunity to interview people on the streets and turned that footage into this short documentary, “SiNYster,” showing the very first social consequences of the 9/11 attack in New York City.

Part I:

Part II:

Pablo Fulgueira studied filmmaking at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica in Mexico City and graduated in 2006.

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.

Should We Be “Like 1900″? Probably Not.

Presidential hopeful and U.S. Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) made the news over the weekend arguing, among other things, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is unnecessary or, even worse, creates a kind of moral hazard in populations who come to depend on Federal relief efforts. In remarks reported Friday, Rep. Paul said that Hurricane Irene should be handled “like 1900,” the year that a large storm killed approximately 8,000 individuals in Galveston and a few thousand more onshore, when it struck the low-lying island and nearby small communities on the Texas coast.

It is certainly true that the Federal response to the destruction of Galveston was relatively minor. Systematic Federal management and provision of aid to individuals in disaster crystallized in response to the Mississippi River’s catastrophic flooding in 1927.  In 1900, it was limited for the most part to President McKinley sending surplus Army tents to house the newly homeless residents of Galveston, and loaning some ships to transport relief goods.

The nation as a whole, on the other hand, quickly mobilized relief donation efforts through newspapers, state and city governments, and the dense network of fraternal organizations that characterized American civil society in 1900. The nation’s response was along the lines of the civic and political institutions of the time, with all that entailed.

[Credit: Rosenberg Library's Galveston and Texas History Center archives]

So, for instance, some of the citizens of Galveston who survived the storm were given liquor for their nerves and pressed into service at gunpoint by local authorities to clear dead and putrefying bodies from the wreckage; some were later partially compensated for their time with a small sum of money. Property owners, however, were exempted from mandatory clearing of debris and corpses.

Voluntary associations – often segregated by gender, race, ethnicity, and class – took care of their own members as best they could, but the broader distribution of relief supplies arriving from other areas was handled by committees of Galveston’s social and economic elites, based on their knowledge of their city’s political districts. Distribution efforts throughout the Texas coast were controversial enough that hearings were held by the Texas State Senate to investigate reports of improper relief distribution, some of which were borne out by testimony but none of which were pursued.  Survivors’ letters suggest that in some cases the nicer relief goods – the distribution of which was handled by committees of Galveston’s social and economic elites on the basis of what they knew about their city’s political districts – went to the wealthier victims’ districts, when they weren’t re-routed by less wealthy and somewhat disgruntled Galvestonians tasked with actually lugging the supplies around the city.  And Galveston’s African-American community was wholly shut out of the rebuilding process and denied a seat on the Central Relief Committee, despite efforts to secure a place in helping shape the collective destiny of the city. This is hardly surprising: poorer Americans tend to suffer disproportionately in most disasters, and are often left out of planning and rebuilding efforts.

There is much to be said for the response of Galveston’s Central Relief Committee. Under their leadership the city built the seawall that helps protect the city to this day and they initiated a series of successful municipal reforms that became widespread during the Progressive era. But we should not let unexamined nostalgia blind us to the realities of the situation in Galveston in the months after the 1900 storm.

Nor should we forget that the techniques that might have been more or less appropriate in 1900 were attuned to a society that has since changed quite a bit. It would be hard to imagine contemporary Americans pressed into service to clear bodies, barring a truly exceptional event. And despite its shortcomings, American culture is on the whole more egalitarian in 2005 than it was in 1900.

But the dense network of associations through which much assistance flowed to the city simply does not exist in the contemporary U.S. for a variety of reasons, none of which are reducible to the growth of the Federal government.  Instead, Americans support each other in crises by way of donations to highly professionalized and technically adept disaster relief organizations like the Red Cross, and by maintaining government organizations charged with preparing for the worst disasters and catastrophes with their tax dollars.

This makes sense in part because contemporary cities and the economic arrangements which undergird them are much more complex beasts than they were in 1900. The following chart property damage and deaths caused by major disasters over the 20th century:

[Source: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned, p. 6.]

The overall trend is toward less lethal but much costlier disasters, which in turn causes significant disruptions to the ordinary functioning of local businesses and municipal governments that depend on tax revenues from those businesses. This necessitates more Federal involvement, as cities and state governments struggle to get their own houses in order, and to pay for the resources and technical know-how needed to rebuild infrastructure, modern dwellings, and businesses. As Lawrence Powell, a historian at Tulane University in New Orleans, asked of the influx of well-meaning volunteers in response to Katrina, “Can the methods of a nineteenth-century barn raising drag a twenty-first-century disaster area from the mud and the muck?”.

The 20th century history of Federal disaster policy can be described as a cycle of expansion and contraction. Increasingly complex disasters draw forth ad hoc solutions, which are then formalized and later institutionalized until they grow unwieldy and are periodically consolidated in efforts to provide more efficient, systematic, and effective services that are less prone to fraud or waste.

Small and big business, social movement organizations, academics, professionals, voluntary associations and NGOs have all helped shape the trajectory of that cycle, as when civil rights organizations successfully lobbied Congress and the Red Cross after Hurricane Camille in 1969 to provide a baseline of minimum assistance to hurricane victims, rather than the older policy that granted aid on the basis of pre-disaster assets (and which thus tended to favor wealthier victims on the basis that they had lost more than had the poor).

In recent decades, this has tended toward deregulation of coastal development in deference to free market ideals and a Congressional movement in the mid 1990s that sought to pay for disaster relief by, in large part, cutting social service programs that serve the poor. (See Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God for one good historical and political economic critique of U.S. disaster policy.)

How Federal disaster mitigation efforts can be more efficient, just, or effective is certainly a worthy conversation to hold. How best to arrange – and pay for – social relationships around economic, ecological, and technological risk is also an excellent topic for deliberation and debate. But to seriously argue that we should strive to make our disaster response regime more like that enjoyed by Americans in the early half of the twentieth century is, for lack of a better word, silly.

(For that matter, it’s hard to understand what Rep. Paul means by his call for more control by the States; the decision to request the involvement of the Federal government and FEMA already rests with the State governors, as per the Stafford Act.)

Former generations of Americans saw a patchwork of state government solutions as inadequate to managing modern disasters, particularly those that overwhelm municipal or State governments. They built Civil Defense agencies, the Office of Emergency Preparedness, and later FEMA in an effort to combine accountability and economies of scale and expertise, and to ensure that in times of disaster Americans could count on their Federal government to marshal tools and talent when local and State governments are overwhelmed and help is asked.

And as my own research shows, the efforts of these state organizations have long been understood by victims and outside observers alike as expressing and relying on bonds of fellow citizenship and civil solidarity. That in recent decades this legacy has been tarnished with cronyism and mismanagement from above says more about those political actors and the institutions of American electoral politics than it does about the inherent worth of Federal disaster management organizations.


Brady Potts is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California. His current research focuses on the history of public discourse and narratives around risk and hurricane disasters, and the role of civic culture in American disaster response.

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Hurricane Katrina and the Demographics of Death

This is an excerpt from a much longer account of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, published at Caroline Heldman’s blog.

The Demographics

During disasters, poor people, people of color, and the elderly die in disproportionate numbers (source), and Katrina was no exception. Many decisions were made in the days leading up to and shortly after Katrina that amplified loss of life for these groups. New Orleans is both a poor (23% poverty rate pre-Katrina – twice the national average) and segregated city, and these factors led to loss of life. First, an effective evacuation plan was not in place that accounted for the 112,000 poor, mostly black New Orleanians without cars. Additionally, the timing of the storm at the end of the month meant that those receiving public assistance were unusually cash-strapped. To make matters worse for poor people with children, school had just started so expenses for the month were higher than usual.

The immobile poor were disproportionately left behind and lost their lives. A comprehensive study of evacuees to Houston (who had stayed behind during the storm) found that 22% were physically unable to evacuate, 14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease (source). Also,

• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane

Age was also a factor in fatalities. Nearly 40% of those who died in Katrina were elderly, and many more elderly individuals died from the stress of evacuation and home loss.

Government Response

Mayor Nagin received nearly $20 million to establish a workable evacuation plan in plenty of time for Katrina, but it’s questionable whether it was ever developed, and it was never disseminated. Two months before Katrina, Nagin spent money to produce and distribute DVDs in poorer neighborhoods to inform residents that they would be on their own if a storm hit because the city could not afford to evacuate them.  In the days before the storm, Nagin sent empty Amtrak trains out of the city, failed to mobilized available school and other buses, and waited an entire day to call for a mandatory evacuation so he could determine whether the City would face lawsuits from local businesses (source). All of these decisions were deadly.

The federal response was no better. The city was quiet after the storm whipped through late Sunday night/early Monday morning when President Bush announced that New Orleans had “dodged a bullet.” Within hours, three major levees breaches and over fifty minor breaches flooded the city. Despite Governor Blanco’s request for federal assistance on Saturday (two days before the storm made landfall) and concern from local media on Sunday (one day before the storm) that the levees wouldn’t hold, they breached on Monday morning with only two Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers on the ground (see the timeline). It would take two days for 1,000 additional officials to arrive.

Once on the ground, FEMA slowed the evacuation with unworkable paperwork and certification requirements. Marc Cresswell, a medic from a private ambulance company, reported that “At one point I had 10 helicopters on the ground waiting to go, but FEMA kept stonewalling us with paperwork. Meanwhile, every 30 or 40 minutes someone was dying.” FEMA was also criticized for turning away personnel, vehicles, medical equipment, food and other supplies, and diesel fuel.

The 30,000 people who evacuated to the Superdome (per Nagin’s instructions) were stranded for a week. Those who evacuated to the Superdome experienced deplorable conditions – unbearable heat, darkness, the stench of sewage, and a lack of food and water. They were not allowed to leave, and, according to several evacuees I interviewed in Texas shortly after the storm, this led one man to take his life by jumping from a balcony. This death was one of only six deaths at the Superdome: one person overdosed and four others died of natural causes. Another 20,000 people gathered at the Convention Center for assistance, an evacuation site the federal government was unaware of until three days after the storm.

President Bush was otherwise occupied during this time. The day Katrina hit, he traveled to Arizona and California to promote his prescription drug plan, had birthday cake with John McCain, and attended a Padres game (source).

Birthday Cake with John McCain

Panicked at the slow federal response, Governor Blanco sent an urgent request: “Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything you’ve got.” The president retired to bed that night without responding to Blanco. The next day, he sang songs with country singer Mark Willis and returned to Texas for the final night of his vacation. The President was so oblivious to the suffering in New Orleans that his staff made a video of news coverage four days after the storm to sensitize him. And, in response, President Bush’s team assembled a carefully crafted PR plan to blame local officials seven days into the ordeal while thousands of people were still stranded. Later that same day, President Bush made the infamous statement, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

Profits over People: The Human Cause of the Katrina Disaster

This is an excerpt from a much longer account of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, published at Caroline Heldman’s blog.

The political and engineering failures that caused the devastation in New Orleans were multiple and decades in the making. First, the storm surge was amplified by years of oil and natural gas companies degrading the integrity of the wetlands with pipelines, causing the land to sink at an alarming rate (source). The Mississippi river levee system was created in response to the sinking wetlands, but this system actually compounds the problem by preventing much of the river’s silt from being deposited in the ocean where it creates a natural buffer (source). Combined, these factors have eroded one million square acres of Bayou since 1930, bringing the coastline 30 miles closer to New Orleans and leaving only a 20 mile buffer from hurricanes (source). Every 2.7 miles of wetlands reduces storm surge by 1 foot, so Katrina surges of 10 – 20 feet in New Orleans would have been 0 – 9 feet with better oversight of corporations carving up the wetlands – not big enough to breach the levees (source).

Secondly, in 1968, The Army Corps of Engineers built the 76-mile Mississippi River Gulf Canal Outlet (MRGO), a canal that brings ships straight from the Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans Industrial Canal (source). The MRGO was built right through the Ninth Ward, physically separating the Lower Ninth Ward from the city. The canal salinated and decimated Bayou Bienville, a freshwater swamp and natural storm buffer along the north end of the Ninth Ward.

A healthy Cypress swamp:


The Bayou Bienville Cypress swamp today:

The MRGO was nicknamed “Hurricane Highway” post-Katrina because it brought the storm surge directly to the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. To add insult to injury, the MRGO has been an economic boondoggle; used by an average of one ship per day since it was built (source). The Army Corps started filling in the canal in 2009 after a federal court decision showing that officials knew that creating the MRGO would doom the residents of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward (source). The judge chided the Army Corps, noting that they “not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the MRGO threatened human life… and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.”

The third preventable human aspect of Katrina was a network of levees suffering from poor design and disrepair from bureaucratic bickering; an 80% cut to levee repair funds under the Bush Administration and misspent money (source). After Katrina, the Corps admitted that “the hurricane protection system in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana was a system in name only,” “an inconsistent patchwork of protection, containing flaws in design and construction, and not built to handle a hurricane anywhere near the size of Katrina” (source). With a weak storm buffer, the storm surge pipeline of the MRGO, and a fatally flawed levee system, it’s no surprise that the greatest number of fatalities occurred in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish (source).

Disaster Tourism

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.  Suddenly 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 T. Caviness, sent along this photograph of a homemade sign propped up in the Lower Ninth, shaming visitors for their “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 bottom floor, fearful that the money will run out before you can get your house, the house that 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 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.

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.

New York Prisoners Left in the Path of Hurricane Irene

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s blog.

News media are comparing Hurricane Irene to Hurricane Katrina in ways that allow us to forget that Hurricane Katrina was a humanmade disaster, but in one way, these events are similar – prisoner evacuation. New Orleans officials chose not to evacuate 7,000 inmates, some of whom were trapped in flooded cells and later left on a bridge for days without food and water, as detailed in this post.  Officials in New York have made the same decision with Hurricane Irene.

Elizabeth Furth, a former student who has participated in rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, sent in this map showing that Rikers Island is not part of the City’s evacuation plan:

Riker’s Island is the unzoned white blob in this close up:

Mayor Bloomberg announced that Riker’s Island would not be evacuated at a recent press conference, despite the fact that the island is surrounded by areas with the second highest evacuation rating (Zone B).  Other New York islands on the map are in Zone A (mandatory evacuation) or Zone B, but Riker’s has no evacuating rating, perhaps because the Department of Corrections doesn’t have an evacuation plan.  According to the New York Times blog, “no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists. Contingencies do exist for smaller-scale relocations from one facility to another.”

Solitary Watch reports that Rikers Island was built on landfill, which is especially vulnerable to disasters. Rikers Island may weather Hurricane Irene without incident, but this disaster has again revealed how prisoners are considered disposable in times of crisis.


An Iconic Image of Government Failure

Hurricane Katrina landed the gulf coast six years ago on August 29th.

This is what it looks like when government fails to protect its citizens:


More than a quarter of people living in New Orleans in August of 2005 lived below the poverty line.  Many of the poor in New Orleans stayed at home to weather the storm.  Why?

Twenty-seven percent of New Orleanians didn’t own a car, making evacuation even more difficult and expensive than it would otherwise be.

People without the means to leave are also the most likely to rely on the television, as opposed to the radio or internet, for news.   TV news began warning people how bad the storm would be only 48 hours before it hit; some people, then, had only 48 hours to process this information and make plans.

Poor people are more likely than middle and upper class people to never leave where they grew up.  This means that they were much less likely to have a network of people outside of New Orleans with whom they could stay, at the same time that they were least able to afford a motel room.

For those who were on government assistance, living check-to-check, it was the end of the month.  Their checks were due to arrive three days after the hurricane.  It was also back-to-school time and many were extra cash poor because they had extra expenses for their children.

A study of New Orleanians rescued and evacuated to Houston (Quigley, 2006), described by political scientist Caroline Heldman, found that:

…14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease…  Also,

• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane

The city failed to get information to their most vulnerable residents in time and they failed to facilitate their evacuation.  The empty buses in flood water, buses that could have been filled with evacuees prior to the storm, is a testament to this failure.

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 Fate of Prisoners during Hurricane Katrina

This is an excerpt from a much longer account of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, published at Caroline Heldman’s blog.  Katrina landed on the gulf coast on August 29th, 2005.

Of the many people who did not or could not evacuate New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina, prisoners were especially helpless.  The American Civil Liberties Union gathered testimony from 400 of the 7,000 people locked up in New Orleans Prison at the time of Katrina, including approximately 100 juveniles.

Many reported being left in their cells while the water rose above their heads; being beaten and sprayed with mace once evacuated (to state maximum security prisons); and left on Interstate-10 in the hot sun for days without food or water. An entire building with about 600 prisoners was left behind in the evacuation process and weren’t rescued for days (source).



This photo of prisoners guarded on I-10 was taken more than two days after the storm:


Most of the 7,000 prisoners had been charged with misdemeanor offenses and would have been released within a few weeks, even if convicted. But Governor Blanco effectively suspended habeas corpus (due process; right to a speedy trial) for six months, so some were incarcerated for over a year – doing “Katrina time.”  “The court system shut its doors, the police department fell into disarray, few prosecutors remained, and a handful of public defenders could not meet with, much less represent, the thousands detained” (source). Prison officials deny that anyone died in the crisis, despite several reports of deaths from both police officers and prisoners (source).

The Orleans Parish Prison continues to have civil rights concerns. In 2009, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department found that conditions at OPP violate inmates’ constitutional rights. The report found that prisoners experience violence from other prisoners, excessive force from guards, are not provided adequate medical services, and live in unsanitary conditions with pests.

This hour-long BBC video documents their experiences: