Natural disasters are often viewed by the mass ascatastrophic happenings that are often beyond our human power. However, in the recentyears attitudes are changing as disaster scholars, social scientists and geographersargue that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. The argument thatthere is no such thing as a natural disaster is formed on the claim that thehuman interference removes the naturalness of the disaster, therefore as aresult, disasters are most times rather unnatural.
On the other hand, theoristssuch as Turner (1976) and Steinberg (2000) argue against this claim and insteadsupport the existence of natural disasters. In this essay I am going to explorethe natural disaster debate. I will do this by analysing two disasters indepth, 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 endby coming to a conclusion and offering my opinion after my research into thedisasters, as to whether or not it can be argued that there is such a thing asa natural disaster.
Understanding whetherthere is such thing as a natural disaster is a complicated topic. Firstly, thisis because for example, according to researcher Whatmore (1999) there is anextensive discussion around if humans should be viewed as part of nature andbeing a natural element, or if we should be expelled and separated from thenature argument. Whatmore (1999, as cited in Cloke, Crang and Goodwin, 2014,p156) argues that nature is “…socially constructed in the sense that it istransformed through the labour process and is fashioned by technologies ofhuman production.” With this argument in mind in the first half of this essay Iam 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 thisby taking the word nature and separating it from the concept of humanity. The first disaster that is going to be explored inthis 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 isa less economically developed country and it is also one of the world’s mostpoverty-stricken countries (Schuller and Morales, 2012).
In Haiti there arelimited opportunities for people and because of this as mentioned many peopleface heavy levels of poverty. With the theme of poverty in mind the locals haverestricted pliability to a potential disaster for example, there are noevacuation plans, there is poor protecting infrastructure and the people ofHaiti also have minimal and poor emergency access (Lackoff, 2007 and Newman,2010). However, despite this on January the 12th 2010, an earthquakewith a measured magnitude of seven on the Richter scale devastated the smallcountry of Haiti. The effects that followed after the earthquake hit Haiti wherecatastrophic, devastation followed in the forms of damage to infrastructure,families left torn apart and a death toll estimated at two hundred and thirtythousand people. Haiti was left torn apart after the earthquake destroyed thecountry.To begin with, Pierre-Louis (2017) argues that what wecall natural disasters such as, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods are indeed natural,but they are just natural hazards.
According to Pierre-Louis (2017) populationin the area which is affected by the hazard plays a key role in defining whathas occurred. To use an example, according to Pierre- Louis (2017) if thepopulation is affected it is a natural hazard. However, if a population is notaffected we should just label a flood as the weather because there have been nolives lost or damage to buildings and infrastructure (Pierre-Louis, 2017). Thiscan be linked to Pelling’s (2003) environmental outline whereby a naturalhazard merged with human vulnerability results in a disaster.
Pierre-Louis(2017) takes problem with the word ‘natural’, such as used by Pelling (2003) inthe environmental diagram, because according to Pierre-Louis (2017) it shouldbe 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 adisaster. Therefore, as a result they are not ‘natural’ because we have hadpredictions 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 earthquakeand Hurricane Katrina as natural we immediately untie ourselves from theresponsibility and adequately planning for the hazard as instead as apopulation we adopt a seemingly lazy it is inevitable attitude (Pierre-Louis,2017). Therefore, it could be arguedthat natural disasters are socially constructed events which are tied up inproblems of marginalisation and prejudices. There is no such thing as a naturaldisaster and rather it is a term used which allows people and groups to avoidresponsibility and blame.Secondly, Sheller (2012) in the article introduces theconcept of the ‘islanding effect’ to help us understand that there is no suchthing as a natural disaster. In the article Sheller discusses how islands suchas 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 duringevacuation for safety purposes, travel was restricted after the disaster hasoccurred and travel is often restricted if the disaster can be predicted.
Inthe case of the Haiti earthquake there was little distress warning given andadditionally there was no time to evacuate when the disaster earthquake struckand therefore people become trapped. According to Sheller (2012) the islandingeffect is down to unequal access to mobility and this can be linked to thetheme of marginalisation. Consequently, this unequal access to mobilityresulted in the Haitians becoming confined and trapped on their own island(Sheller, 2012). Moreover, in the case of the Haiti earthquake the disasterlogistic tragically produced uneven mobilities, for example outside foreign aidworkers held the ability to bring in supplies and they could come and go withfree will, whereas the poverty-stricken locals faced decreased mobility(Sheller, 2012). The people that generally escaped the island where UnitedStates citizens of a Haitian origin, or the affluent citizens of Haiti(Sheller, 2012). Therefore, the people trapped after the disaster and unable toflee where the marginalised poorer citizens of Haiti, with some people havingno passports, or money to travel.
In a like manner, the theme of marginalisationof the poorer social groups is not just aligned to the Haiti earthquake.Marginalisation of the poorer social groups is a common theme throughout manydisasters and to give another example this can be seen in the disaster ofHurricane Katrina. The evacuation plans for Hurricane Katrina relied onautomobility as Sheller (2012, p188) states “…evacuation plans relied onsystems of automobility…” Therefore, again the theme of marginalisation of thepoor can be seen because those who cannot afford their own transport are notcovered in the evacuation plan. Brooks (2005, as cited in Squires and Hartman,2006) argues that Hurricane Katrina was mislabelled as a natural disaster andrather it was a social disaster.
Then, with this argument in mind it can beconcluded that both the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina are humaninduced disasters rather than natural because if it was not for themarginalisation of the poor then there would not have been such a high deathtoll and destruction rate. Therefore, with this second argument in mind we canindeed say that there is no such thing as a natural disaster.