'Disaster' professor adds Katrina to course

At one Connecticut university, deadly hurricane will join a chronicle of human suffering

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September 04, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun Staff

When Professor Emil Pocock handed out the syllabus on the first day of class in History 327 last week, it wasn't yet clear whether it would need revision.

Hurricane Katrina had whipped across Florida the week before, gained power in the gulf over the weekend, and slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi the same morning, eerily enough, that he started his class at Eastern Connecticut State University: "Disasters in the United States."

Even before the second class, though, it was evident that the syllabus, and history itself, would need rewriting: Hurricane Katrina will likely go down as the costliest natural disaster in American history, and one of the deadliest.

Pocock's class looks primarily at natural disasters, including what are generally considered the three deadliest in American history -- the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, that claimed more than 6,000 lives; the 1898 Johnstown flood, in which 2,200 perished in Pennsylvania; and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that killed anywhere from 700 to 2,500, according to various estimates.

Pocock, who grew up outside of Catonsville and graduated from the University of Maryland, has been a professor of American Studies at the college in Willimantic for 18 years, and started the class on American disasters four years ago.

How did you come to teach a class called "Disasters in the United States"?

I've always been fascinated by natural disasters, both as these awesome phenomena and also from the scientific end; I've had a lifelong interest in weather, even though I'm a historian. But I think it was 9 / 11 that inspired me to start the class.

How so?

I wanted to show the students that, as awful and horrendous as the events of 9 / 11 were, the U.S. has experienced quite a number of disasters of similar or equal magnitude, and that the country is resilient. I wanted to show them that we get over it, as a society, as a nation. And I wanted to show them that there are ways to avoid them, ways to mitigate them and ways to cope with them, and that in the end we do. We have to. There's no other way.

In New Orleans, it seems that those who didn't evacuate are disproportionately poor. Is this typical of natural disasters -- the poor suffer more?

Absolutely. There are a lot of social inequities when it comes to natural disasters, and in earlier disasters, it was quite bald-faced and stark. But even in the 21st century, in New Orleans, we're seeing that. I think it's clear that people with cars got out that way, and the people without them ended up in the Superdome, which turned out to be a trap. On top of that, the homes of the poor are not as substantial and they are usually relegated to more dangerous areas, lowlands and along canals.

How will Hurricane Katrina rank among the deadliest natural disasters in America?

You're not going to get a definitive count, or anything close to it, probably for a few weeks. Bodies will continue to be discovered all over the place -- down the river, washing up on shore, under debris. And then, there will be the additional number of people who die of diseases directly associated with the storm, like typhus or typhoid, and their deaths may not be recorded as such for some time. There may not ever be a definitive tally.

Will it go down as worse than the Galveston hurricane?

The hurricane in Galveston in 1900 is not a bad one to compare to this one, though Galveston was a much smaller city. It probably suffered more damage than New Orleans. There, the storm surge just raged right across Galveston, which sat on an island. Houses weren't flooded, they were swept away and Galveston ended up as a huge pile of lumber at the far end of the island. In New Orleans, this was the original fear -- that it would be completely overwhelmed by storm surge. That didn't happen. ... The problems began when the levees breached.

Can the argument be made then that most natural disasters aren't totally natural?

That is an important distinction. The hurricane or the earthquake or the flood is a natural event that's going to come in any case, but ... what makes it a disaster is that human beings have gotten in the way of nature.

New Orleans was founded in 1718, because it was strategically located at the mouth of a river. It was on low ground -- below sea level -- and subject to periodic flooding, but people understood that flooding was a nearly annual event and they prepared for it. The problem is when you start building levees, and keeping the water back, and you become dependent on huge pumps to keep the city dry, when a breach comes or the pumps break down, the city is going to be flooded.

Most "natural disasters" are not entirely natural. In some cases, in every case, really, there is a portion of human responsibility.

So if people weren't living there, it wouldn't be a disaster?

If there were no New Orleans there, we wouldn't have had a disaster there. It may not be reasonable to use that as a criticism and say, "Oh, you stupid people," but that is the reason why there's a disaster. ... People build in places they know are vulnerable. People who build their houses on barrier islands, for instance, they're just asking for it. Within their lifetime, a hurricane is going to come and it is going to wipe out their house. Yet they build, and rebuild, anyway.

Should New Orleans be rebuilt?

We can say the city was in the wrong place, but we can't move it. It's a port city, a city of commerce, a historical city. I have no doubt they're going to rebuild it and the Army Corps of Engineers will say the way to fix it is to build the levees higher, meaning the next time it happens, it will only be worse.

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