Steinberg releases book on 'unnatural' disasters

May 13, 2001

CLEVELAND -- "Twist of Fate" reads the headline, following a tornado disaster. Not so fast, says Case Western Reserve University historian Ted Steinberg.

In his book, "Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America", Steinberg looks at the intersection of humankind and the environment -- how humans have put themselves in harm's way, disavowed moral responsibility, and, in the aftermath of the destruction, called upon the government to pay and clean up the mess.

"Natural disasters have come to be seen as random, morally inert phenomena -- chance events that lie beyond the control of human beings," writes Steinberg.

By making nature the "villain" in natural disasters, Steinberg says our society ignores its responsibility in natural disasters. He adds, "It's almost as though we have a collective amnesia about disasters."

Blaming nature has become, in effect, a political tool, which government officials, the media, policymakers, and business leaders use, according to Steinberg.

"If you want your society to function in an efficient, streamlined fashion, you don't want your citizens asking questions about the deeper meaning of time, money, or what happens when the earth shakes," he stresses.

Steinberg argues that the disastrous effects of geological and weather extremes are often the product of social and economic forces. Surveying more than a century of catastrophes, beginning with the 1886 Charleston earthquake, he observes that what are termed "natural" disasters are actually acts of social injustice perpetrated by government and business on those -- the poor, minorities, and the elderly -- least able to withstand such blows.

Consider the effect of high winds on mobile homes. Between 1981 and 1997, more than one-third of all tornado fatalities occurred among those living in such structures. This is no accident, says Steinberg.

He shows that for nearly two decades the federal government allowed the mobile home industry to produce housing that it knew would not stand up to high winds. And yet the homes were sold to the poor and elderly, who cannot afford to live in fixed foundation homes, as "hurricane resistive."

When Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, the mobile home industry exaggerated the wind speed of the storm, turning the disaster into a freak of nature, when it was anything but that, says Steinberg. During the storm, 97 percent of the 10,000 mobile homes in Dade County, Florida, were destroyed in the calamity.

Steinberg became interested in the issues of human complicity in natural disasters while working as a summer intern for a Wall Street brokerage house where he covered the mobile home industry beat. After listening to the industry promote the virtues of its homes, he would joke with colleagues about the inherent magnetism of the tornado-prone products.

Steinberg leaves his readers with these thoughts: "The next time the wind kicks up and the earth starts to roar, what will we tell ourselves? Will we rise up in indignation at what nature has done to us? Or will we reflect on our own role as architects of destruction? How we answer these questions will determine the future of calamity."

Case Western Reserve University

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