On Disasters, “Natural” and Otherwise
Lots of people have pointed out that Hurricane Katrina can be considered a “natural” disaster only if we ignore the historical and social patterns that clustered New Orleans’ poorest residents in low-lying parts of town such as the Ninth Ward, or the engineering of water systems in the city that aimed the storm surge directly at the eastern part of the city.
Next Thursday, October 9, at 4:00, Sandra Zellmer, Robert B. Daugherty Professor of Law, University of Nebraska, will give a talk “Unnatural Disasters: How Law Hurts, How Law can Help.” The Thursdays at Four program is in the Crosby Seminar Room, second floor, Northrop Auditorium, on the east bank of the University of Minnesota campus.
Zellmer’s current focus on issues of disaster and law pertains to laws governing water and how they may or may not be in alignment with what we know about water’s behavior. As the lecture description points out:
It’s seductively deceptive to call floods and other catastrophes “natural.” They are anything but. Storms may well be natural phenomenon, but humans have an uncanny ability to exacerbate their own vulnerability to them by shortsighted engineering projects, undue faith in technology, poor decisionmaking processes that encourage development in the floodplain, and federal, state, and local subsidies. The acknowledgement of our own responsibility for unnatural disasters can lead to blame and finger-pointing, but it can also prod us to confront the consequences of our actions, leading to the knowledge necessary to avoid future disasters. This, in turn, can stimulate a liberating sense of possibility and opportunity—melding our own social and economic aspirations with the environmental imperatives of water and waterbodies. If we acknowledge that at least some disasters are unnatural, not uncontrollable “acts of God,” then we have a fighting chance at making better laws and better decisions in the future.