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DISASTERS: Recipes and Remedies / Vol. 75, No. 3 (Fall 2008)

Arien Mack, Editor

This issue contains papers from the 17th Social Research conference, Disasters: Recipes and Remedies, which took place at The New School in November 2007. “Disasters” was chosen as a topic for a number of reasons -first, there is clear evidence that disasters of many different kinds are becoming more frequent and their effects increasingly far-reaching as a result of growing globalization.


When I was first asked to introduce these papers, I immediately began to reflect on my own experience with disaster -which as it turns out, is more substantial than I imagine. Rodney King, Northridge earthquake, 9/11 to name a few. In reflecting all this, I came to the stunning realization that disaster was not something that happened to other people, but rather, it was a phenomenon that had transpired to a remarkable degree, in shocking proximity to the places I worked and lived.

This article discusses global warming as a disaster management issue. The measurement of natural disasters in terms of duration and severity is framed in terms of the social aspects of emergency management and preparedness. The lack of relationship between scientific metrics determining the magnitude of disasters and the public perception of the disastrous is explored. While the melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland will meet the scientific definition of a disaster, they author believes that public perception may be muted by the slow onset of this change. Events that scientists think of as normal, such as wildfires, are perceived by the public as a disaster.

This article discusses the development of analytical tools that allow people to assess their vulnerability to a disaster despite the low probability of its occurrence. The limited utility of probability theory in the development of a social scientific assessment of natural disasters is noted. The psychological aspects of risk assessment are considered. The disconnection between the probabilistic assessment of risks by governments and businesses and the estimation of risks by individuals, who tend to treat these issues imaginatively, is noted.

This article discusses the portrayal of disasters in the mass media. The author contrasts the media's tendency to focus on the unique aspects of disasters with the continuity of issues such as poverty and inequality in the exacerbation of disasters. Examples of disasters in the media including the 2004 Asian tsunami are noted. The contrast between the public response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana and its response to the California wildfires of 2007 is analysed for its implications regarding class in the US.


The contributions in this section make clear that while certain forces of nature have the potential to become catastrophic, a disaster can only be fully achieved through the playing out of human choices, political processes, and social structures. The pursuit of wealth and power, the setting of public priorities, the design of political institutions, 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 destructive capacity.

This article discusses the increasing vulnerability of society to natural and social disasters. Issues relating to the allocation of risk premiums in areas vulnerable to flooding are addressed. The author believes that similar problems surround the transportation of hazardous chemicals by train through metropolitan areas. the decentralization of potential targets of terrorism and locations that would magnify the consequences of accidental environmental disasters is advocated. The application of this plan to facilities such as telecommunications hotels, chemical plants, and oil refineries is described.

This article discusses issues of racial discrimination faced by the survivors of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005. The government response to that natural disaster is analysed in terms of its failures to limit the risks faced by African-American residents during the recovery and rebuilding process. The collapse of public transportation during hurricane Katrina, which compromised the ability of African Americans to evacuate inner city New Orleans, is described. The history of racial discrimination during incidents of flooding in the Southern U.S. is explored.

This article discusses the author's experience working on emergency preparedness and disaster relief programs in the U.S. following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. The inability of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which were reorganized as part of the War on Terrorism, to respond effectively to emergencies such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is described. The author believes that a lack of investment in health services accessibility and other related community support mechanisms leaves poor populations who are already underserved at a disadvantage during the emergency management process.

This article discusses the failure of the floodplain management infrastructure in the U.S. to deal with the impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Mississippi River watershed during 2005. The politicization of public works spending on the levee system and other flood plain management measures in the U.S. is described. The role of the U.S. Congress in the decentralization of infrastructure planning is presented as an impediment to the effective coordination and maintenance of flood control apparatus. The need to refocus the Corps' to deal with the environmental aspects of watershed management and flood control is considered.


This article, written by the New York City fire commissioner under mayor Michael Bloomberg, addresses the reorganization of that department following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Challenges associated with emergency management in New York are described. The effects of firefighter deaths during the attacks and an increase in retirements in its aftermath are analysed. The author describes his work with McKinsey & Company to institute strategic planning within the department following the attacks. Technological adaptations of the department to coordinate communications between emergency management agencies and remotely monitor emergencies are described.


This section explores how communities and individuals prepare for, and respond to, disasters and the extent to which they do directly, indirectly or subconsciously. By asking or perhaps stating “What ‘Really’ Happens When Disasters Happen,” Erwann Michel-Kerjan, Elliot Aronson, Enrico L. Quarantelli, and Howard Kunreuther unpack the personal and political calculus of disaster preparation and response.

This article discusses changing ideas about the catastrophic during the 21st century. The difficulties faced by governments seeking to manage the infrastructure necessary for emergency management are assessed. The impact of political considerations on government finance of disaster relief efforts is considered. Issues relating to the relationship between public and private sector responsibilities in emergency management are considered. Issues relating to urbanization and the concentration of economic assets in hazard prone regions are addressed.

This essay considers the psychological impacts of disasters on human behavior. The difficulties of overcoming human denial in the communication of risks are assessed in terms of the difficulties surrounding the promotion of safe sex. Related issues in emergency management such as the encouragement of preparation for probable disasters such as earthquakes are noted.

This article discusses research into the psychology of group behavior during disasters. The distinction between the disastrous in the catastrophical in human experience is considered. The development of research into antisocial behavior during disasters such as looting and violence is considered. Examples include Hurricane Hugo in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. White collar crimes following disasters are also noted. Research into whether or not survivors of disasters are stunned into passivity is considered. Issues relating to the psychological impact of catastrophic incidents are also addressed.

This article frames the changing character of emergency management in terms of the changing economics of risk exposure resulting from economic development and urbanization. Statistics relating the increasing cost of natural disasters for insurers and survivors are presented. Questions relating to the insurability of continued development along sea coasts and in other high risk areas are raised. Weaknesses in risk assessment practices and the economic behavior of people living in hazard prone regions are noted. The design of long-term property insurance policies that encourage hazard mitigation is discussed.


The papers in this section demonstrate several interesting points about disasters, and about academic interest in them. One is a remarkable convergence of perspective about what is important. All agree obviously that the extent and dimension of people’s suffering as a result of disaster is important to study. This ranges from the psychological phenomenon of post-traumatic stress disorder to the destruction of community.

This article discusses the challenges associated with the management of natural disasters. Human relationships with nature established in the course of the urban planning process are presented as determining factors in the development of natural disasters. The role of global warming and environmental change in the transformation of disaster risks is noted. Statistics maintained by the Center for the Research of Epidemiology of Disasters in the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) are presented. The role of sustainable development strategies in the mitigation of environmental hazards is emphasized.

This article discusses how El Salvadoran families respond to disasters and personal loss as it affects their participation in international migration. This study compares the effect of personal losses, such as a death in the family, to aggregate losses such as the social impact of the 2001 earthquake. The author believes that these different responses to crises result from the impact that natural disasters exercise on credit and social support for migration. This hypothesis is tested against the possibility that disaster relief efforts might require family unity or provide economic incentives that militate against migration is considered.

This article discusses the challenges faced by residents of New Orleans, Louisiana following the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The connections between a declining urban tax base and the slow pace of reconstruction following the hurricane is described. The fragility of infrastructure in New Orleans is considered. The continued economic contraction of the city is framed in terms of increasing levels of segregation in New Orleans. The challenges faced by people tying to envision the development of a sustainable urban environment in New Orleans are described.

This article discusses the psychological responses of survivors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The role of community response in determining individual resilience under psychological stress is considered. The prevalence of post traumatic stress among people affected by disasters is described. Evidence based approaches to limiting the psychological injuries associated with surviving a disaster are considered. Strategies for encouraging social solidarity and community resilience in the face of disasters are addressed. The public health implications of these findings are considered.

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