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.