What Hurricanes Tell Us About Ourselves

Mr. Perez is J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor Department of History, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of Winds of Change: Hurricanes and the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba, Winner of the 2001 George Perkins Marsh Prize, American Society for Environmental History.

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The comparisons seem to be inescapable. New Orleans as the Third World: displacement and destitution, internal migration and "refugees," hunger and homelessness. That most of the people caught up in these conditions are conspicuously men, women, and children of color–and poor–serves to make the comparisons all the more compelling. In fact, New Orleans in the wake of Katrina has been profoundly implicated in the Caribbean condition.

The hurricane haunts the Caribbean like a spectral presence. It has always been thus. The experience makes for the memory of a lifetime; in time it passes into history; with enough time it becomes the stuff of folklore. Almost everyone in the Caribbean has a memory of a hurricane--at least one--and always, it seems, one in particular: that one encounter with terror, often at an impressionable age. But then, too, hurricanes have a way of making an impression at any age. No passage of time seems to dim the memory of the experience, or its effects: it is something that people remember clearly and recall often. The experience can serve permanently to demarcate a lifetime, and persist thereafter as the reference point by which people often make those profoundly personal distinctions about their lives as "before" and "after."

The hurricane can often serve as a flashpoint, a means by which to illuminate the social landscape during a brief but revelatory moment, when complex realms of relationships--between the moral and the material, between the private and the public, between the expectations of authority and the authority of expectations--suddenly appeared with a clarity never before imagined. The calamities occasioned by hurricanes often reveal new realities and expose larger truths about the conduct of daily life, about the role of the State, the nature of class structures, the character of race relations, about kinship ties and community bonds.

Nothing perhaps has escaped the searching gaze of the historian as thoroughly as the habits of everyday life, those practices and behaviors so common, so ordinary, that they cease to be apprehended at all, even--and indeed especially--by the very people who order a large part of their quotidian existence around the rhythm of routine: actions repeated day after day, over long periods of time, those behaviors that give order to the structures by which people organize their daily lives and in the aggregate serve to validate the very appearance of normality of existing social systems.

These are precisely the conditions that are impossible to sustain during the disarray occasioned by the hurricane. By subverting the assumption by which the everyday life function, hurricanes serve to reveal the social tissue that give form and function to the human condition.

Because people long so dearly to return to routine, previously taken for granted, they are able to summon up the cognitive categories around which to articulate the ordinary with a new found sense of self-interrogation--and often urgency--as something to which they sought to return. In that process they gave ordinary life a clarity and texture unimaginable under any other circumstances.

The winds come down particularly hard on the poor: men and women, white and black, the young and old, the mass of humanity concentrated in the cities, the poor who toil in the countryside, the displaced and the destitute--in sum, the vast numbers for whom hardship seems to beget hardship and whose circumstance of subsistence make them especially susceptible to the advent of new hardship. Families living close to or at the threshold of adversity have a far-shorter distance to travel to succumb to indigence. This is not to suggest that misfortune "finds" them in particular, but rather when it does find them the results are especially desperate. People who lived with little have little to lose, of course, but when they do lose it they lose it all.

These are the people most vulnerable to the hazards of the hurricane, many who live more or less in permanent proximity to the edge of adversity, over which they are plunged by the winds and waves of the storm. They inhabit fragile dwellings, constructed with the simplest of building materials, often in the most vulnerable locations, and rarely possessing sufficent resources for recovery.

Certainly the well-to-do also experience losses in hurricanes. It is not uncommon for families of means to plunge hopelessly in debt and distress, from which many never recover, subsequently to disappear from both public view and social prominence, and in time also pass into the quiet obscurity most commonly reserved for almost everyone else.

That the concept of disaster implies numbers on a vast scale, however, means that it is the disruption and dislocation visited upon that portion of humanity most vulnerable to adversity that serves as the principal narrative arc of accounts of natural disaster. People of humble means and circumstances, urban dwellers and country people alike, experience hurricanes as catastrophic occurrences. Residential patterns no less than construction materials cannot but reflect the social hierarchies around which daily life is organized. Hurricanes serve at least as much to reveal existing inequalities as they create new inequities. One natural disaster can reveal multiple layers of social disparity. Adversity is visited especially on the men and women of modest means who, by virtue of the material circumstances by which their daily lives were circumscribed, lack the means and the resources with which to protect themselves against the force of the natural elements. Put simply, families of humble origins and modest means are at greater risk of calamity than affluent households.

Hurricanes raise corollary issues of social control and political order. As the population increases, and as the base of the social pyramid expands often in exponential proportions to the apex, "disasters" imply a range of political possibilities. Insofar as the hurricane has the capacity to shatter the routine of daily life, it thereby often renders inoperative the basis by which vast numbers of people negotiate the terms of livelihood and arrange the terms of well-being. These circumstances have the potential to erode existing value systems sustained by tradition and to which voluntary acquiescence had been rendered as a matter of course, not necessarily as a matter of conscience. The prospects of vast numbers of people having lost the little they owned, and hence with little left to lose, thereupon driven by the despair of their want to seek amelioration of their condition, perhaps immediately by way of looting and sacking, place in doubt the very usefulness of rules and regulations by which the rationale of the status quo obtains acquiescence.

The hurricane provides an occasion to reveal a people to themselves, to place in question received wisdom, to examine anew the assumptions by which daily life is lived. On occasions, a hurricane may reveal contradictions of such magnitude as to set in motion far-reaching political change. Mostly, however, the hurricane passes, and life returns to normal. But rarely is "normal" the way it used to be: not immediately, often not for years that follow, sometimes not ever.

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