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Discover Mid-America — March 2006

Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America by Ted Steinberg; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; paperback, 320 pp., B&W illustrations, $19.95, 9780195165456; www.oup.com

More than natural or accidental

In Acts of God, Ted Steinberg says what we are all thinking. Though many of us want to deny it, Americans put themselves in the path of flood, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes. Then, to exonerate ourselves, we call the destruction of our property and the loss of lives natural disaster.

We want to deny it because…well…it just can’t be true. But Steinberg argues that Americans have often built their industrial and residential infrastructures, not to mention farming operations and transportation networks in floodplains, on shifting coastal sands, in wetlands and on the open plain — places where earth, air, fire and water reign.

Steinberg shows that natural disaster has a history and that it is a human product. He opens the book in Hannibal, MO, the home of America’s premier riverman, Mark Twain. There, flooding has grown increasingly worse over the course of the last decades. It became such a problem that the Army Corps of Engineers built a floodwall around the town in 1985 to keep the Mississippi out.

The problem was this: The floodwall was one part of a vast complex of floodwalls and levees that confined the Mississippi to an ever-narrower channel. They amounted to short-term fixes for a long-term American thirst for cheaply developable land, and as land goes, floodplain is the flattest, barest and most easily bulldozed around.

Earthworks and concrete structures increased the ability of people to develop not only because they kept water out, at least for a while, but also because they created a sense of safety. Development, however, increased the amount of storm runoff by decreasing the amount of wetland and floodplain the river could drain into. As the channel became narrower, the job of the human-built structures became harder. Water not only overwhelmed the structures, but the structures increased the damage by keeping floodwater from draining back into the river channel. Subsequently, flooding became worse. The amount of water had increased in a smaller, enclosed area. The amount of development allegedly protected by levee and floodwall had also increased.

In short, rivers flood. When they flood, they do the amount of damage to infrastructure, life and industry proportional to the amount of development in the way. If we build nothing in the flood plain, we lose nothing. Anything we build in the floodplain, even behind a floodwall or levee, we put at risk.

Steinberg further shows this risk is subsumed by American taxpayers responding to a nationalistic rhetoric of profit motive and profit-taking. Once God willed disaster and sent messages to Americans via nature. But as Americans became more secular, and their government and business more corporate and all encompassing, nature moved from God’s domain to a random set of occurrences that just couldn’t be helped. “Natural disaster,” he writes, have come to be seen as random, morally inert phenomena — chance events that lie beyond the control of human beings…making nature the villain.”

Using the language of natural disaster has relieved government, business and the citizenry of their roles in the loss of life and property. It also justified public financing of flood control, shifting public assets to corporate bottom lines.

Take, for instance, Miami Beach. After World War II, tourism became Florida’s single most important industry. The last great hurricane anyone might have remembered happened twenty years before in 1926. To accommodate developers’ demand for improvable property, the local and state government worked to assist private investment find the land it was so thirsty for. The local and state government allowed hotels, resorts and developers to expand private holdings into the ocean by building bulkhead they could fill with sand. Public officials also divided and subdivided swamp and wetlands to provide more area for development. More people moved to the area, more tourists came and, in front and behind them, hundreds of millions of dollars private investment. When the lull in the hurricane cycle ended in the late-1960s, all those people and all that property became the center of federal efforts both to relieve the distress of corporations and individuals with money invested in shifting sands, and to keep renewing those sands with American taxpayer money.

As Steinberg shows, the same kind of dynamic has occurred in along the Missouri River in St. Charles County, Missouri, where federal flood insurance and flood wall protection allows the increase in both investment and population in increasingly risky zones. He shows that when disaster strikes, the poor pay. They work in and build the businesses of those who invest in flood, earthquake and hurricane-prone areas. Their tax dollars reduce the risk to those with money to invest. They rent the flimsiest housing in disaster areas — mobile homes and trailers, and rickety, wood-frame structures. And because they rent or own uninsured low-cost housing, they rarely see reimbursement for loss, which is particularly ironic because, for instance, flood insurance is federally subsidized.

Acts of God is polemic that is for sure. But it is solid history pertinent to Midwesterners. Steinberg argues in language that historians often avoid for looking too political. Agree with him or not, he cuts through the rhetoric of disaster to show that what we take for granted as natural is anything but accidental. Americans do not need to build where disaster strikes, and if some do, the rest of us need not pay.

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at patrickdobson@earthlink.net.


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