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Mobile Disasters

Catastrophes in the Age of Manufactured Uncertainty

Steve Matthewman

Sociologists of disasters and those agencies dedicated to disaster risk reduction and emergency relief tend to fix disasters, to confine them in time and space. This article argues for the necessity of a mobilities turn within mainstream disaster studies, demonstrating what the new mobilities paradigm (NMP) can contribute to disaster scholarship. Disasters should be seen as mobile agents with spatially and temporally dispersed effects. They are mobile because people, nonhuman life-forms, information, and commodities move. The ecosystems and earth systems that sustain us are also always in flux. Instead of focusing on isolated disaster cases, this article calls for a “big picture” ecological sensibility that recognizes the complexity and interconnectivity of our world, and addresses the new forms of mobility, temporality, spatiality, and potency inherent to today’s disasters. This task is urgent: while previous eras may have announced the apocalypse, ours may well be the last one to do so.

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Catherine O'Byrne

The Piper Alpha disaster remains the most significant event in the history of the British North Sea oil industry, yet despite a large range of scholarship on the topic women's experiences of the disaster have not been heard publicly. This article uses oral history testimony to add the private experiences of women who were affected by the disaster to the public experiences of men. The focus of the analysis is on the gendered and political nature of remembrance and the impact that women had on the way that Piper Alpha was commemorated and remembered.

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Susann Baez Ullberg

Flooding has long been a recurrent problem in the Argentinian city of Santa Fe, mainly affecting the poverty-stricken suburban outskirts. In 2003 one of the worst floods ever occurred, which also affected residents in the middle income sectors who had never been flooded before and who reacted with an extraordinary process of commemoration and protest against the government for its lax disaster management. Paradoxically, most other past disastrous floods in the city’s history seem to dwell in the shadows of social oblivion. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the years 2004–2011, this article analyzes how local flood memories are made through daily life practices and places in the suburban outskirts, more than through public commemorations, which has implications for vulnerability and risk.

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Anatomy of a disaster

The neo-liberal state in Mumbai's 2005 flood

Judith Whitehead

This article discusses the networked forms of governance that have arisen as part of roll-out neo-liberal policies in Mumbai, India, focusing on the flood of 26 July 2005 and its aftermath. The municipal government's inaction during and after the flood is attributed to the decentralization of governance, as well as to cutbacks to public health and basic services in recent years. The rise of competitive urbanism as a part of roll-out neo-liberalism is analyzed as producing gaps in disaster management planning and implementation. The article concludes with a call for a refinanced state and a centralization of municipal bodies under a unified municipal council, seen as necessary to provide the professionalized services required during large-scale emergencies such as floods.

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Virginia García Acosta

*Full forum is in Spanish

English abstract: This article explores the social cohesion-disaster risk reduction binomial. This is the continuation of previous publications, published both in Regions & Cohesion and in other places, aimed at examining available concepts that may be useful for the study of disasters and risk, their reduction and their prevention. The article reviews various definitions of social cohesion and disaster risk reduction to later explore the link between them by introducing associated notions such as solidarity and resilience. These are reflections that have nurtured the Consortium for Comparative Research on Regional Integration and Social Cohesion (RISC) working group called “Social Construction of Risks and Disasters” and that, we hope, continue to nourish it.

Spanish abstract: Este artículo explora el binomio cohesión social-reducción de riesgos de desastre. Se trata de la continuación de ejercicios anteriores, publicados tanto en Regions & Cohesion como en otros espacios, dirigidos a examinar conceptos disponibles que puedan resultar útiles para el estudio de los desastres, del riesgo, de su reducción y prevención. El artículo revisa diversas definiciones de cohesión social y de reducción de riesgos de desastre para, posteriormente, explorar el vínculo entre ellas a partir de incorporar a la discusión nociones asociadas como solidaridad y resiliencia. Se trata de reflexiones que han nutrido al grupo de trabajo del Consorcio en Investigación Comparativa en Integración Regional y Cohesión Social (RISC, por sus siglas en inglés) denominado “Construcción social de riesgos y desastres” y que, esperamos, lo sigan nutriendo.

French abstract: Cet article explore le binôme cohésion sociale-réduction des risques de désastre. Il s’inscrit dans la continuité de publications antérieures parues dans Régions & Cohésion et dans d’autres espaces dans le but d’examiner les concepts disponibles qui pourraient être utiles pour l’étude des désastres et des risques, de leur réduction et de leur prévention. L’article révise plusieurs définitions de la cohésion sociale et de la réduction des risques de désastres pour explorer ensuite le lien entre elles à travers l’introduction de notions associées comme la solidarité et la résilience. Il s’agit de réflexions qui ont alimenté le groupe de travail du Consortium pour la recherche comparative sur l’Intégration régionale et la cohésion sociale nommé «Construction sociale des risques et des désastres » et qui, nous l’espérons, continueront à le nourrir.

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The Complete Story of the Galveston Horror

Trauma, History, and the Great Storm of 1900

Andy Horowitz

This article considers the lurid accounts of looting and lynching that circulated after the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane, the deadliest storm in United States history. Previous accounts of the flood have tended to ignore or subsume these stories in narratives of heroic recovery and progress. But Galvestonians' fantasies of racial violence suggest that the specific catastrophe of the flood was part of the ongoing disaster of racial terror in Texas at the turn of the twentieth century. Understanding disaster as a chronic human process rather than an acute wound from nature reveals that, instead of allowing white Galvestonians to transcend their history of violence against African Americans, the storm seemed to authorize them to further enact and reenact the imposition of suffering.

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Virginia García-Acosta

*Full article is in French

English abstract: The concept of “social construction“ associated with risks has proved to be an increasingly useful analytical tool among disaster experts. However, as is natural with the creation and evolution of theoretical concepts to explain reality, it has acquired different meanings. This, in some cases, has generated some confusion in its use. This paper attempts to clarify some of the variations of the concept “social construction of risk“ by studying and reviewing its main usages and contents. In particular, it looks at the concept's association with perception and with vulnerability. It is basically a theoretical essay intended to help scholars who study disasters so they can use more fluently one of the concepts that will allow them to better comprehend the object of their studies.

Spanish abstract: El concepto de “construcción social“ asociado con los riesgos ha demostrado una utilidad analítica cada vez mayor entre los estudiosos de los desastres. Sin embargo, como es natural que ocurra en la generación y evolución de planteamientos teóricos para la interpretación de la realidad, se le han atribuido significados diversos. Lo anterior ha contribuido en algunos casos a confusiones en su utilización. Este ensayo pretende contribuir a esclarecer algunas de las variaciones en el uso del concepto “construcción social del riesgo“ por medio del estudio y revisión de los principales manejos y contenidos que se le han dado, particularmente dos de ellos: el que lo asocia con la percepción y el que lo hace con la vulnerabilidad. Se trata de un ensayo básicamente de corte teórico, cuyo objetivo último es aportar elementos para que los estudiosos de los desastres puedan disponer con mayor fluidez de uno de los conceptos que permitan comprender el objeto de su estudio con más destreza.

French abstract: Le concept de « construction sociale » associé aux risques a démontré une utilité grandissante en tant qu'outil d'analyse pour les spécialistes qui étudient les catastrophes. Toutefois, comme c'est le cas de tout processus naturel de création et de développement des approches théoriques qui servent à l'interprétation de la réalité, des significations diverses ont été données à ce concept. Ce e diversité a contribué dans certains cas à créer des confusions dans son utilisation. Le présent article éclaircit des variations du concept de construction sociale du risque par l'étude et la révision des principaux usages et contenus qui lui ont été donnés, dont deux en particulier : celui qui l'associe à la perception, et celui qui l'associe à la vulnérabilité. Cet essai a comme objectif d'offrir une réflexion de nature théorique sur l'utilisation d'un des concepts fréquemment utilisés par ceux qui s'adonnent à l'étude des catastrophes.

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Hannah Swee and Zuzana Hrdličková

Although communities around the world have been experiencing destructive events leading to loss of life and material destruction for centuries, the past hundred years have been marked by an especially heightened global interest in disasters. This development can be attributed to the rising impact of disasters on communities throughout the twentieth century and the consequent increase in awareness among the general public. Today, international and local agencies, scientists, politicians, and other actors including nongovernmental organizations across the world are working toward untangling and tackling the various chains of causality surrounding disasters. Numerous research and practitioners’ initiatives are taking place to inform and improve preparedness and response mechanisms. Recently, it has been acknowledged that more needs to be learned about the social and cultural aspects of disasters in order for these efforts to be successful (IFRC 2014).

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Erin R. Eldridge

Coal ash, the waste generated at coal-burning power plants, is one of the largest waste streams in the United States, and it contains a range of contaminants, including arsenic and mercury. Disasters at coal ash waste sites in recent years have led to increased public scrutiny of coal ash in communities and have sparked policy debates, lawsuits, and complaints throughout the country. With emphasis on federal and state coal ash policies since the 1970s, this article highlights the synthesis of government and corporate power in coal ash politics, and the bureaucratic processes affecting communities near coal ash sites. Based on ethnographic research following the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash disaster, as well as preliminary research on the “social life” of coal ash in North Carolina, this article specifically offers ethnographic insight into the lived experiences of social and ecological violence created, perpetuated, and normalized through bureaucratic processes.

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Md Saidul Islam and Si Hui Lim

Home to 60 percent of the world's population, Asia accounts for 85 percent of those killed and affected globally by disaster events in 2011. Using an integrated sociological framework comprised of the pressure and release (PAR) model and the double-risk society hypothesis, and drawing on data obtained from the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), PreventionWeb, and the IPCC special report on extreme events, this article offers a sociological understanding of disaster development and recovery in Asia. The particular focus is on seven Asian countries, namely, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Rather than treating disasters entirely as “natural” events caused by “violent forces of nature”, we emphasize various ways in which social systems create disaster vulnerability. We argue that existing disaster mitigation and adaptation strategies in Asia that focus almost entirely on the natural and technological aspects of hazards have serious limitations, as they ignore the root causes of disaster vulnerabilities, such as limited access to power and resources. This article therefore recommends a holistic approach to disaster management and mitigation that takes into consideration the various larger social, political, and economic conditions and contexts.