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.


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