Interpreting Disaster


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I thought that both pieces had some intriguing arguments. Steinberg helped me answer some questions that I had about the San Francisco Earthquake, while Davis raises more questions for me to figure out that mamorte highlights in his post.

Steinberg seems to answer the question that we had in class Tuesday as to why the San Franciscan businessmen did not want people to know that the city had been destroyed; the businesses wanted other places to assume that the city was fine, and that they could do business as usual with the San Franciscan businesses. Moreover, the businessmen wanted others in commerce to believe that even though the city was earthquake-prone, this would not affect its business because they circulated the idea that the fire did more damage to the city than the earthquake; any city is susceptible to fire. I also agree with Steinberg’s argument that “blurring the boundary between natural and human actions obscures the social and economic forces responsible for calamity in the first place” (118). People try to make it more difficult to pin down the causes of what actually happened in order to disperse evidence for blame. This idea also poses a threat to the reliability of primary source evidence in the study of history and disasters. When people try to make sense of a traumatic event in immediate aftermath while trying not to place blame on themselves or others like themselves, they are much more likely to skew their own interpretation of what happened.

I also liked Davis and his piece about the ecology of fear, comparing disasters in different time periods and how they’ve developed. I think it’s interesting how he claims that disasters will continue to have more catastrophic effect, even though we have had a lull in terms of calamity from disasters since the Gilded Age. I am not saying that I disagree with his main argument, but I find it intriguing.