Natural disasters are often viewed by the mass as
catastrophic happenings that are often beyond our human power. However, in the recent
years attitudes are changing as disaster scholars, social scientists and geographers
argue that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. The argument that
there is no such thing as a natural disaster is formed on the claim that the
human interference removes the naturalness of the disaster, therefore as a
result, disasters are most times rather unnatural. On the other hand, theorists
such as Turner (1976) and Steinberg (2000) argue against this claim and instead
support the existence of natural disasters. In this essay I am going to explore
the natural disaster debate. I will do this by analysing two disasters in
depth, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the Foot and Mouth disease of 2001. Also,
I will briefly touch upon a third disaster, Hurricane Katrina. I will then end
by coming to a conclusion and offering my opinion after my research into the
disasters, as to whether or not it can be argued that there is such a thing as
a natural disaster.

Understanding whether
there is such thing as a natural disaster is a complicated topic. Firstly, this
is because for example, according to researcher Whatmore (1999) there is an
extensive discussion around if humans should be viewed as part of nature and
being a natural element, or if we should be expelled and separated from the
nature argument. Whatmore (1999, as cited in Cloke, Crang and Goodwin, 2014,
p156) argues that nature is “…socially constructed in the sense that it is
transformed through the labour process and is fashioned by technologies of
human production.” With this argument in mind in the first half of this essay I
am going to tackle the statement “there is no such thing as a natural disaster”
by supporting it and building my case around this argument and I will do this
by taking the word nature and separating it from the concept of humanity.

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The first disaster that is going to be explored in
this essay is the earthquake which took place in Haiti in the year of 2010.
Haiti is a small country which is located on the island of Hispaniola. Haiti is
a less economically developed country and it is also one of the world’s most
poverty-stricken countries (Schuller and Morales, 2012). In Haiti there are
limited opportunities for people and because of this as mentioned many people
face heavy levels of poverty. With the theme of poverty in mind the locals have
restricted pliability to a potential disaster for example, there are no
evacuation plans, there is poor protecting infrastructure and the people of
Haiti also have minimal and poor emergency access (Lackoff, 2007 and Newman,
2010). However, despite this on January the 12th 2010, an earthquake
with a measured magnitude of seven on the Richter scale devastated the small
country of Haiti. The effects that followed after the earthquake hit Haiti where
catastrophic, devastation followed in the forms of damage to infrastructure,
families left torn apart and a death toll estimated at two hundred and thirty
thousand people. Haiti was left torn apart after the earthquake destroyed the

To begin with, Pierre-Louis (2017) argues that what we
call natural disasters such as, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods are indeed natural,
but they are just natural hazards. According to Pierre-Louis (2017) population
in the area which is affected by the hazard plays a key role in defining what
has occurred. To use an example, according to Pierre- Louis (2017) if the
population is affected it is a natural hazard. However, if a population is not
affected we should just label a flood as the weather because there have been no
lives lost or damage to buildings and infrastructure (Pierre-Louis, 2017). This
can be linked to Pelling’s (2003) environmental outline whereby a natural
hazard merged with human vulnerability results in a disaster. Pierre-Louis
(2017) takes problem with the word ‘natural’, such as used by Pelling (2003) in
the environmental diagram, because according to Pierre-Louis (2017) it should
be used loosely as there are often predictions and warnings about disasters,
therefore we should in fact as a population we are able plan accordingly for a
disaster. Therefore, as a result they are not ‘natural’ because we have had
predictions and warnings. Consequently, only when there are problems such as,
lack of infrastructure and poor planning we can then label it as a disaster
(Pierre-Louis, 2017). If we refer to disasters such like, the Haiti earthquake
and Hurricane Katrina as natural we immediately untie ourselves from the
responsibility and adequately planning for the hazard as instead as a
population we adopt a seemingly lazy it is inevitable attitude (Pierre-Louis,
2017).  Therefore, it could be argued
that natural disasters are socially constructed events which are tied up in
problems of marginalisation and prejudices. There is no such thing as a natural
disaster and rather it is a term used which allows people and groups to avoid
responsibility and blame.

Secondly, Sheller (2012) in the article introduces the
concept of the ‘islanding effect’ to help us understand that there is no such
thing as a natural disaster. In the article Sheller discusses how islands such
as Haiti are at a severe pitfall when it comes to escaping from a post disaster.
The islanding effect works firstly by restricting movement in a triad of stages.
Firstly, in the case of Haiti, travel out of the island is restricted during
evacuation for safety purposes, travel was restricted after the disaster has
occurred and travel is often restricted if the disaster can be predicted. In
the case of the Haiti earthquake there was little distress warning given and
additionally there was no time to evacuate when the disaster earthquake struck
and therefore people become trapped. According to Sheller (2012) the islanding
effect is down to unequal access to mobility and this can be linked to the
theme of marginalisation. Consequently, this unequal access to mobility
resulted in the Haitians becoming confined and trapped on their own island
(Sheller, 2012). Moreover, in the case of the Haiti earthquake the disaster
logistic tragically produced uneven mobilities, for example outside foreign aid
workers held the ability to bring in supplies and they could come and go with
free will, whereas the poverty-stricken locals faced decreased mobility
(Sheller, 2012). The people that generally escaped the island where United
States citizens of a Haitian origin, or the affluent citizens of Haiti
(Sheller, 2012). Therefore, the people trapped after the disaster and unable to
flee where the marginalised poorer citizens of Haiti, with some people having
no passports, or money to travel. In a like manner, the theme of marginalisation
of the poorer social groups is not just aligned to the Haiti earthquake.
Marginalisation of the poorer social groups is a common theme throughout many
disasters and to give another example this can be seen in the disaster of
Hurricane Katrina. The evacuation plans for Hurricane Katrina relied on
automobility as Sheller (2012, p188) states “…evacuation plans relied on
systems of automobility…” Therefore, again the theme of marginalisation of the
poor can be seen because those who cannot afford their own transport are not
covered in the evacuation plan. Brooks (2005, as cited in Squires and Hartman,
2006) argues that Hurricane Katrina was mislabelled as a natural disaster and
rather it was a social disaster. Then, with this argument in mind it can be
concluded that both the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina are human
induced disasters rather than natural because if it was not for the
marginalisation of the poor then there would not have been such a high death
toll and destruction rate. Therefore, with this second argument in mind we can
indeed say that there is no such thing as a natural disaster.

Moreover, disasters are further made worse by human
interaction and vulnerability. To put this into context, disaster
reconstruction more often than not deepens the exploitation of the marginalised
(Smith, 2006). After the disaster struck New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina and
the dead became unaccounted for it was found that developers had already began
to look for a new opportunity. The takeover of the developers was compared to a
“developers’ gold rush” (Streitfield, 2005, as cited in Smith, 2006, para 3).  This is a common theme after disasters as
developers seek to rebuild. However, the poor and marginalised often become worse
off after the disaster due to a decrease in wages, an increase in stigma and an
increase in costs for alternative housing (Smith, 2006). Therefore, again there
is a theme of the marginalisation of the poor as the money focused developers
strive to make a profit and as a result the poor are displaced. Smith (2006,
para 16) claims that “There is no such thing as a natural disaster, and the
supposed naturalness of the market is the last place to look…” I agree with
this because as demonstrated it is human interaction as proved which almost
always links up with disasters and often this worsens them, especially in the
case of post Hurricane Katrina.

To sum up, the argument put forward by theorists such
as Squires and Hartman (2006), Smith (2006) and Sheller (2012) that there is no
such thing as a natural disaster. I believe is accurate. Firstly, I am in
support of the claim because if it was not for the marginalisation of the poor
in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina then the damage and death toll could have indeed
been reduced, or even prevented. Moreover, if it was not for the ignorance of
warning given pre-disaster then again, the damage could have been on a much
lower and less damaging scale. Additionally, I believe it is important to take
the stance like theorists Smith (2006) and Sheller (2012) by insisting that
there is no such thing as a natural disaster because through taking this stance
we are able to take responsibility as a society and also take action to
minimise the possibility of such disaster, or hazard happening again.

On the other hand, it is important to recognise that
there is a weakness to the argument formed by the social scientists,
geographers and disaster scholars in that there is no such thing as a natural
disaster.  In the second half of this discussion
essay I am going to consider nature and humanity as intertwined concepts. I
will explore why it could be argued that there is such thing as a natural
disaster.  I will achieve this by using the
Foot and Mouth disease case which visited the UK in 2001 and again the Haiti
earthquake of 2010 to demonstrate this point of view.

The Foot and Mouth disease is an infectious and often
fatal disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals.  In 2001, over a period of seven months the
Foot and Mouth contaminated over 2030 premises. The contamination led to
slaughter of six million animals and it was particularly hard hitting for the
rural communities (Law and Singleton, 2004). Animals which are affected by Foot
and Mouth are cloven-hoofed animals such like, sheep, goats and deer. Cumbria
was the hardest hit compared to any other place in the United Kingdom, the
outbreak lasted for months on end in upland areas and this was particularly
tragic because the farming community was already suffering due to the dropping
global prices and the changes in exchange rate between £ sterling and the Euro
(Law and Singleton, 2004).

Turner (1976, as cited in Alexander, 1999, p4) defines
a natural disaster as “…an event concentrated in time and space, which
threatens a society or a relatively self-sufficient subdivision of a society
with major unwanted consequences…”  The definition
given by Turner (1976) aligns to the 2001 Foot and Mouth disaster. Firstly, the
farming society was threatened because farmers lost their animals and this in
turn led to farmers losing their livelihoods, an unwanted consequence. Moreover,
referring back to the 2010 Haiti earthquake according to Turner (1976) this
could also be seen as a natural disaster. The Haiti earthquake could be seen as
a natural disaster because the earthquake destroyed infrastructure, homes and
families, all of which are major unwanted consequences. For this reason, the
Foot and Mouth disease (2001) and the Haiti earthquake (2010) could be seen as
natural disasters as they correlate to the definition presented by Turner

Secondly, it is argued that natural disasters do exist
and occasionally they are said to be ‘acts of God’ and this therefore means
that natural disasters are both inescapable and certain (Apodaca, 2017). Therefore,
it could be argued that the Foot and Mouth disease, Haiti earthquake and Hurricane
Katrina where certain to happen, no matter what. Erikson also explores this
theme and can be seen to be supporting it within his book “Natural disasters
are almost always experienced acts of God or caprices of nature. They visit us,
as if from afar” (Erikson, 1994, as cited in Law and Singleton, 2004, p3).  Therefore, from Erikson (1994) and Apodaca
(2017) points of view natural disasters cannot be stopped. Natural disasters
have been previously criticised in the first half of this discussion essay for not
existing because as according to Sheller (2012) disasters such as Hurricane
Katrina and Haiti could have been prevented, or at least impacts minimised
through early preparation and emergency planning. In major contrast, the ‘act
of God’ viewpoint assumes that disasters are entirely natural and are a result
punishment for sin (Steinberg, 2000). However, a key weakness of the ‘act of
God’ theory is that it is used by officials such as governments to escape
responsibility for the disaster (Steinberg, 2000) For example, through naming
Haiti earthquake as an ‘act of God’ governments are able to escape the
realities of marginalisation of the poor. Moreover, in the case of Foot and
Mouth disease by claiming an ‘act of God’ officials avoid realities of the
disaster and how to prevent an outbreak from happening again in the future
years to come.

Overall, the argument put
forward by Turner (1976), Steinberg (2000) and Apodaca (2017) in that disasters
are natural I believe is that of a weak one. Firstly, using the statement
disasters are an ‘act of God’ is an escapist term and a way to avoid
punishment. I use the term avoid punishment because officials do not want to be
seen as responsible because if they are they may incorporate fines for
disasters and this claim of responsibility can also lead to imprisonment. Therefore,
then as a result, negative press will follow and whoever is fined to be
responsible will be faced with stigma. However, on the other hand the
definition of a natural disaster put forward by Turner (196) of an event which
threatens a society with unwanted consequences does hold some logic I believe.
There is always going to be a split in society of the classes, for example rich
and the poor and more often as we have found the poor are mostly affected, due
to marginalisation. However, class division on one hand should not stop a
disaster such as, Haiti earthquake from being labelled as ‘natural’, since the
weather is a natural element which tragically destroyed a community.

conclude, this essay has explored the claim that there is no such thing as a
natural disaster using three disasters, Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and
the Foot and Mouth disaster. This essay has concluded the two sides of the
argument and I have incorporated my views into each sections conclusion.
However, as I have established the causes of disasters are more complex than
they appear to be at first and this is because they transpire out of complex
social and natural interactions. It becomes increasingly hard to distinguish
whether a disaster is natural because as this essay has revealed humans are
almost always involved and because of this many argue that this removes the
naturalness from the disaster (Whatmore, 1999). Nevertheless, I am concluding
that indeed there is no such thing as a natural disaster. I am concluding with
this opinion because if it was not for the social and economic issues coupled
with human interaction then the primary and secondary effects of Hurricane
Katrina and Haiti earthquake would not have been so adverse. On the contrary,
this arguably does not explain the reasoning behind Foot and Mouth disease
(2010). However, it was found that the Government ignored advice given in 1969
Northumberland report into previous Foot and Mouth whereby it was said infected
animals should be killed and buried on the same day (Brooker and North, 2001).
This crucial piece of information again signifies that humans contributed to
the intensifying disaster and if farmers did kill and bury infected animals on
the same day then the disaster may not have destroyed such high numbers of
livestock. Therefore, with this in mind it can be argued there indeed is no
such thing as a natural disaster, humans coupled with inequalities almost
always do remove the naturalness from disasters.

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