Kierner examines ‘culture of disaster’ in new book

by Colleen Kearney Rich

Kierner examines ‘culture of disaster’ in new book

An adaptation of this article will appear in the Spring 2020 edition of the Mason Spirit magazine.

It was Superstorm Sandy that inspired George Mason University historian Cynthia Kierner to write her latest book Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood, which was published in November by the University of North Carolina Press. The stories told about disaster and its survivors led Kierner to wonder about the origins of our way of responding to disasters and develop what she calls “a culture of disaster.” She is also collaborating with two other scholars on an edited collection of disaster history essays.

What inspired you to write this book?

Oddly, the event that inspired it was Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Jersey Shore (and New York City) in 2012. Because I grew up going to the shore, and still go there every summer, I found the news coverage of Sandy and the disaster relief efforts after the storm absolutely fascinating. I also noticed that the sorts of stories told about disaster victims and survivors and the people who helped—or sometimes did not help—them were pretty much the same as after other recent disasters. This led me to wonder about the origins of this way of responding to disasters—or what I call a culture of disaster.

What is a "culture of disaster?"

A predictable, almost ritualized, series of responses to a calamity that causes death and destruction for a community. Any culture of disaster is a product of its time and place. In other words, understandings of disasters and responses to them were different in, say, 17th-century England and 19th-century China—different from each other and from what we do in 21st-century America. In the modern United States, when disaster strikes, the media quickly provides basic information to people outside the affected area. Soon, these brief quantitative reports of losses of lives and property are supplemented by moving human-interest stories. Meanwhile, government and humanitarian groups arrive at the site to provide relief and maintain order. Once the immediate crisis has passed—or has at least passed out of the public's consciousness—the more affluent survivors file their insurance claims, while the authorities consider regulations or other initiatives that might prevent future disasters or limit their effects. Then, another disaster comes along, and the entire process begins all over.

Was there anything in your research that surprised you?

The exploding steamboats! They were everywhere in 19th-century America. One estimate is that 233 steamboats exploded between 1816 and 1848 alone—an average of more than 10 each year—leaving thousands dead, thousands more injured, and the bodies of many others unrecovered and uncounted. The frequency of steamboat disasters and the publicity surrounding the carnage led to public demands for government intervention, which eventually resulted in the steamboat safety acts of 1838 and 1852, which were the first federal laws to regulate private corporations. While I never expected steamboats to be such a major part of my story, because of their cultural and political significance, they became the subject of my sixth chapter.

Transportation-related calamities--shipwrecks, exploding steamboats, and train wrecks--all figure prominently in your book. Why?

I found that shipwreck stories, which became popular as Europeans explored and colonized the globe, were the first widely circulated disaster narratives. Among the seafaring and commercially minded populations of Britain and British colonial America, they were enormously popular—just as sensational stories about steamboat explosions, and then railroad wrecks, were for later generations.

Stories are an essential part of the culture of disaster because they evoked emotion, which, in turn, led to efforts to prevent disasters—or at least to limit the misery they caused—and also inspired post-disaster relief efforts. And these particular stories were so powerful, I think, because so many people could identify with them.

Most people had not experienced an earthquake or a hurricane, but many had been on a ship—or a steamboat or a train—or knew someone who had been. These transportation-related disaster stories were so affecting precisely because the conveyances that fatally malfunctioned were part of the fabric of daily life, so people could readily imagine themselves or their loved ones as victims of just that sort of deadly calamity.

Do you have a favorite disaster?

That’s a really funny question! I’d probably say the Richmond theater fire of 1811. Fires were common at the time, but fatalities from fires were surprisingly unusual. At least 72 people died in this fire. As a result, it had a tremendous emotional and cultural impact. There were heart-wrenching stories of victims—mostly women and children—fire-related sermons, and even children’s books. There was a huge public funeral for the victims. The Monumental Church on Broad Street, at the site of the theater, was built to commemorate the tragedy.

You argue that disasters became normalized in the modern American psyche. Why/how has this occurred?

Other scholars have made this point. On the one hand, it does seem that disasters are much more common (or "normal") than they used to be, and that's especially true for disasters that result from climate change and environmental degradation. On the other hand, modern Americans have more information about disasters across that globe than ever before. In terms of making disasters seem normal, rather than extraordinary, that information overload is really decisive.

I think my contribution is to situate the normalization of disasters in modern America in a longer historical context. In Jamestown in 1607, people didn't even have the idea of "disaster" as we know it. Two hundred years later, Americans were on the verge of having a full-blown culture of disaster, albeit in a rudimentary form. I would argue that exploding steamboats were the normal, everyday disasters of the first half of the 19th century. In fact, sometimes the newspaper headline for a steamboat story would actually be "Another Steamboat Disaster."

Your book also discusses the role of the government in providing disaster relief. How has the involvement of government changed over time?

Inventing Disaster is actually about a time when the U.S. government—and also, for that matter, the state governments—were rarely involved in disaster relief (or prevention). Readers may be shocked to learn that the Founding Fathers did not see humanitarian relief for disaster-ravaged communities as part of the mandate of the U.S. Constitution. And, so, there was essentially none provided until the post-Civil War era, when problems like drought, famines, floods, and insect infestations became tangled up in federal Reconstruction efforts in the southern states.

For the first half of the 20th century, federal disaster relief was ad hoc and mostly aimed to preserve property and maintain order (as opposed to helping the suffering, which remained mostly the job of the Red Cross and other nongovernmental groups). Only in 1950 did Congress enact comprehensive national disaster legislation, which actually did not result in an immediate and dramatic expansion of federal involvement in disaster relief and prevention, though it was an important first step in that direction.

How does Inventing Disaster speak to our response to disasters in the present?

Science, sentiment, and information—the three components of the culture of disaster that emerged over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries—remain essential to how Americans understand and respond to disasters, though all three operate somewhat differently in a 20th-century context.

Whereas scientists in earlier eras strove to understand the causes of earthquakes, hurricanes, etc., we today have that knowledge but—in the U.S. at least—it is fashionable to reject scientific findings particularly when acting on them seems too expensive, inconvenient, or politically unpopular. Climate change is obviously the premier example.

Information used to be scarce and carefully curated, but now it is free-flowing and abundant. That's sometimes good—consider famine relief for faraway Ethiopia in the 1980s—but sometimes not, especially when the news is fake or when it stigmatizes certain segments of the population.

Sentiment and human-interest stories remain central to today's culture of disaster. But the overwhelming feeling of being constantly bombarded with sad disaster stories seems to have led us to substitute momentary sentiment for sustained and effective action. Rather than fixing the problem, let's just send our "thoughts and prayers."