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Katrina and Social Vulnerability: Disaster is Not Natural

JURIST Guest Columnist Jim Chen of the University of Minnesota School of Law says that the Hurricane Katrina disaster one year later still challenges us to acknowledge and address America's deep social vulnerability, so exposed in the aftermath of the storm...

Hurricane Katrina broke America's collective heart. No previous natural disaster in the nation's history inflicted a grimmer toll. The legendary city of New Orleans all but sank when its levees failed and the resulting storm surge drowned much of the city and many of its feeblest, most vulnerable residents. Although Katrina exposed flaws in virtually every aspect of disaster management at every level of government in the United States, the magnitude and senselessness of the loss serve to indict American society for its callous disregard of social vulnerability.

"The moral test of government," said Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, "is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped." Arnold v. Arizona Dep't of Health Servs., 160 Ariz. 593, 775 P.2d 521, 537 (1989) (quoting Humphrey). The cloud of natural disaster puts government to an extreme test of its ability to protect those citizens who dwell in the dawn, the twilight, and the shadows of life. As Katrina demonstrated, social vulnerability profoundly affects the ability of governments to prepare for, respond to, mitigate, and recover from natural disasters.

Natural disaster supposedly does not discriminate; it putatively strikes everyone in its path, without regard to race, class, age, sex, or disability. In other words, "poverty is hierarchic, smog is democratic." Scott Frickel, Our Toxic Gumbo: Recipe for a Politics of Environmental Knowledge, (Oct. 6, 2005) (quoting Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Toward a New Modernity 36 (1986)). Closer examination of the interplay between natural and social factors at work in any disaster, however, belies this assumption. Disaster does not so much erase as expose social vulnerabilities within the society it strikes. Although "'[n]atural disasters' such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods are sometimes viewed as 'great social equalizers" in the sense that "they strike unpredictably and at random, affecting black and white, rich and poor, sick and well alike," Katrina bluntly demonstrated that "the harms are not visited randomly or equally in our society." Center for Progressive Reform, An Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 34 (2005).

Disasters are never strictly "natural." Catastrophic losses invariably stem from social as well as environmental factors. Around the world, social injustice contributes so heavily to the incidence and intensity of natural disasters that the quest for domestic and global equality may be rightfully regarded as a valuable tool for refining the law's approach to disaster preparedness, response, mitigation, compensation, and rebuilding.

The first step in overcoming natural disaster lies in defining social vulnerability. According to one definition, social vulnerability means "the characteristics of a person or group in terms of their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural hazard." Piers Blaikie, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis & Ben Wisner, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters 9 (1994). In The Geography of Social Vulnerability: Race, Class, and Catastrophe, Susan Cutter elaborates this definition in a very useful way: "Social vulnerability is partially a product of social inequalities — those social factors and forces that create the susceptibility of various groups to harm, and in turn affect their ability to respond, and bounce back (resilience) after the disaster."

In other words, social vulnerability consists of two distinct components: the susceptibility of certain groups to harm and the resilience of these groups. Susceptibility is an ex ante quality; it is already in place when disaster strikes. Inequality in New Orleans and elsewhere throughout America has taken hundreds of years to build. Differences in living conditions, wealth, political power, and so forth rendered the poorest, often black victims of Katrina susceptible to disproportionate loss during the storm.

Resilience, by contrast, assumes importance after the fact. Rebuilding communities destroyed by natural disaster demands extraordinary human and material resources. Material resources available for recovery — and often taken for granted — in more affluent communities may simply not exist in poorer communities. Crucial physical and social infrastructure, often strained or undermined by disaster and its aftermath, is not as readily reestablished.

Katrina played itself in media reports as a grand tragedy of race and class, of official incompetence and social injustice. If anything, the condemnation of a society that found itself unprepared for Katrina has not been severe enough. To prevent or at least to mitigate future disasters, we must confront social vulnerability in all its manifestations, from its racial and class-based dimensions to other vectors of discrimination laid bare by the storm, such as sex, age, and immigrant status. All of these factors contribute to the susceptibility of specific individuals and groups to disaster. In addition to recognizing and making best efforts to ameliorate these sources of susceptibility to harm during disasters, government owes its weakest citizens a corresponding responsibility to maximize their resilience in disaster's wake.

If anything redeems the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina, it is America's collective appreciation of the survival, suffering, and heroism that accompanied the storm. A society better attuned to questions of social vulnerability might yet glimpse some future time when that storm's winds and rains have fully subsided and "the needles thick on the ground" of the Gulf shore "will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke." Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men 438 (Harvest 1996; 1st ed. 1946). "But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go … into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time." Id.

Jim Chen is Associate Dean and James L. Krusemark Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School. He is the co-editor (with Daniel Farber) of Disasters and the Law: Katrina and Beyond (Aspen, 2006).

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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