When the Levees Break: The Revelatory Powers of Disaster

What is a disaster? And more importantly, who or what is responsible for it? Jonathan Bergman explores various perspectives and themes concerning how scholars have addressed these questions in his article “Disaster: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” He notes how there has never been an established answer for either question. Before 1900, disaster was commonly accepted as divine retribution, with a vengeful God casting his judgment on a select community or area.  More recently, however, scholars have contended that human agency is present in every “natural” disaster. Matthew Mulcahy aptly reflects this view, noting “disasters become disasters only when natural forces meet human ones.” (936) Regardless of these definitions, Bergman argues that disasters can serve as tools of revealing societal trends and civil conflicts.

While Bergman may jump the gun a bit in describing disasters as “useful,” his analysis makes interesting points on how natural and man-made disasters often fit into political debates. Conflicts triggered by American disasters, especially in the twentieth century, bear a remarkable resemblance to ones seen today. The Dust Bowl contributed to ideological divide between the traditional view of “rugged individualism” and rising New Deal progressivism. The influx of the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s led to controversy concerning immigration and social homogeneity- concerns that have yet to subside. Bergman notes an evident parallelism between Mississippi Delta flooding in the 1920s and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the 2000s. Both ignited fiery debates concerning race, wealth, and governmental disaster relief. Overall, Bergman indicates that the “usefulness” of natural disasters lies in how they reveal social, economic, and political patterns that have adapted little over the course of time and are still prevalent today.

Defining disasters and their study: a topic of multidisciplinary interest

In this week’s readings, both Bergman and Hewitt ponder the characteristics of disasters: how are they defined? What are their prominent elements? What are their implications? How do they fall within the delineations of academic inquiry?

I found Hewitt’s analysis succinct and focused, and therefore more useful. Perhaps most usefully, Hewitt distinguishes between the routine–highway, smoking, lifestyle related deaths–and the more unexpected ‘extreme events’ (Hewitt 5). These fall into the major categories of natural, technological, and war-related disasters. He also suggests some important characteristics of disasters such as their concentrated death and injury; their wont to catch individuals or societies unaware, and perhaps represent a new, previously unknown, threat; and their natural tendency to overwhelm previously functional societal and governmental systems.

Bergman’s work, more so than Hewitt’s, is a historiographical analysis. Analyzing, or at least mentioning, a wide variety of historiography on disasters, Bergman asserts clearly that disasters are necessarily social and human. Furthermore, he argues that those analyses which separate the human from the exogenous cause of the disaster are incomplete. Indeed, I believe this to be true: in their history of the disasters and upheaval in reformation Europe, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe, Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell argue the illogic of trying to find every early modern disease’s contemporary counterpart. Convincingly, they write that the disease is no more the bacterium or virus that causes it than it is the experience of the disease itself. For example, syphilis in 2014–many years after penicillin–bears little resemblance, in terms of experience, to syphilis in 1500. Likewise with disasters: the greatest earthquake or flood is no disaster without the human experience, regardless of its other effects.

Compellingly, one might argue that this definition is more inclusive than it might seem at first. Human compassion may include many disasters which cost no human lives, directly or otherwise: the Exxon-Valdez spill comes to mind.

Eventually, it seems the definition of a disaster will lack some specificity, such that it may include the wide variety of events which the humans who experience them deem disasters. I believe that to be acceptable: historians (and geographers) can continue their study of those events that they, or others, deemed disasters in their own experience.


Welcome to the history of American Disasters of the Gilded Age, taught at Davidson College in the Spring of 2014.  This space will function in lieu of a Moddle forum – as a place for you to register weekly opinions on the reading, drop in interesting links.  The blog is not indexed with Google, but it is still accessible to any who might stumble upon it.  To that end, if you don’t want your posts to be searchable by your Davidson handle, feel free to change it (users>your profile>nickname) and send me the name you’ll be posting under.