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Steve Fraser: A Disaster for All Seasons

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Even if you set aside the man-made environmental disaster that is China (at a cost now estimated conservatively at $230 billion annually), ever more expensive disasters seem to be on the rise globally.  Moreover, thanks to climate change -- that is, the greenhouse gases we've been pumping into the atmosphere at record levels -- the distinction between man-made catastrophes and natural ones is rapidly blurring.  In the United States, we've recently suffered a one-two punch when it comes to extreme weather: 2011 now holds the American record for weather disasters that cost $1 billion dollars or more with 14 of them, and 2012 came in an uncomfortably close second with 11.  (You can check out the list here.)  The Swiss Insurance firm Munich Re points out that "nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America."  A dubious honor.

And of them all, perhaps the most expensive of recent times, already estimated to have cost more than $50 billion, is the drought that had 60% of the country in its grip last year and has continued relentlessly into 2013, parching the Southwest, the Midwest, and parts of the West.  This, in turn, almost assures another season of "record" wildfires and, according to early predictions, possibly a new round of flooding from late season heavy snowfall in the upper Midwest and especially along the Red River.

In addition, on the billion-dollar bad-news side of things, scientists now believe that the continuing dramatic loss of ice in Arctic waters, which has been heating up that region, is also changing northern hemispheric weather patterns.  It is evidently ensuring more extreme weather in the middle latitudes which helps explain, for instance, Europe's "frozen spring" of 2013, and will evidently lead to even warmer summers for most of us.

And when we're talking about extreme weather, extreme events, and disasters, let's not forget that globally the likelihood of extreme energy events like BP's massive oil spill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico is also on the rise.  After all, as Michael Klare has long argued at this site, energy companies are now ever more regularly going after extreme energy in situations of rising danger.  As a result, from the frack zone in the U.S. and the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil to the Arctic seas of Alaska, the possibility of distinctly energy-company-made disasters is on the rise (as, of course, are record oil company profits).   

In other words, we're now on a planet where extreme disaster seems ever more normal and, when it comes to the weather, such extremes can increasingly be considered man-made or at least human-influenced.  It's important to keep in mind as well that what's a catastrophe for many of us always turns out to be the main chance and a profit center for at least a few of us.  As Steve Fraser, TomDispatch's historian-in-residence (who tells tales of American history you never learned in school), reminds us, there's a backstory to the way genuine disasters are never disasters for everyone and it couldn't be more relevant to our increasing catastrophe of a world.  (As a tiny example, consider that each horrific oil spill means more oil company dollars flowing to lobbyists and to Congress -- and so yet more high times on Washington's K Street.)

With that in mind, sit back and let yourself be enveloped in the great fires, earthquakes, and floods of our past history, and those who profited from them.  Tom 

Making Disaster Pay
From the San Francisco Earthquake to Superstorm Sandy, How Capitalism Stacks the Deck on Disaster
By Steve Fraser

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In 2007, a financial firestorm ravaged Wall Street and the rest of the country.  In 2012, Hurricane Sandy obliterated a substantial chunk of the Atlantic seaboard.  We think of the first as a man-made calamity, the second as the malignant innocence of nature.  But neither the notion of a man-made nor natural disaster quite captures how the power of a few and the vulnerability of the many determine what is really going on at ground level.  Causes and consequences, who gets blamed and who leaves the scene permanently scarred, who goes down and who emerges better positioned than before: these are matters often predetermined by the structures of power and wealth, racial and ethnic hierarchies, and despised and favored forms of work, as well as moral and social prejudices in place before disaster strikes. 

When it comes to our recent financial implosion, this is easy enough to see, although great efforts have been expended trying to deny the self-evident.  "Man" did not bring the system to its knees; the country's dominant financial institutions and a complicit government did that.  They've recovered, the rest of us haven't.

Sandy seems a more ambiguous case.  On the one hand, it's obvious enough that an economy resting on fossil fuels played a catalytic role in intensifying the storm.  Those corporate interests profiting from that form of energy production and doing all they can to defend it are certainly culpable, not the rest of mankind which has no other choice but to depend on the energy system we're given. 

On the other hand, rich and poor, big businesses and neighborhood shops suffered; some, however, more than others.  Among them were working class communities; public-housing residents; outer borough homeowners; communities in Long Island, along the New Jersey shore, and inland as well; workers denied unemployment compensation; and the old, the sick, and the injured abandoned for days or weeks in dark and dangerous high-rises without medical help or access to fresh food or water.  Help, when it came to these "disadvantaged" worlds, often arrived late, or last, or not at all.

Cleaning up and rebuilding New York City and other places hit by the storm will provide a further road map of who gets served and whose ox gets gored.  It's ominous, if hardly shocking, that Mayor Bloomberg has already appointed Mark Ricks of Goldman Sachs to the business-dominated team planning the city's future.  Where would this billionaire mayor turn other than to his fraternity brothers, especially in this era when, against all the odds, we still worship at the altar of the deal-makers, no matter their malfeasances and fatal ineptitudes?

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Still, it is early days and the verdict is not in on the post-Sandy future.  However, an incisive analysis by sociologists Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg of what happened after the 9/11 attacks in New York and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina offers some concrete forebodings.  Everyone knows that, as soon as Katrina made landfall, the racial divisions of New Orleans became the scandal of the month when it came to which communities were drowned and which got helped, who got arrested (and shot), and who left town forever.  To be poor in New Orleans during and after Katrina was a curse.  To be poor and black amounted to excommunication. 

Gotham and Greenberg prove that, post-9/11 and post-Katrina, reconstruction and rehabilitation was also skewed heavily in favor of the business community and the wealthier.  In both cities, big business controlled the redevelopment process -- and so where the money landed and where it didn't. 

Tax breaks and private sector subsidies became channels for federal aid.  "Public benefit" standards, which once accompanied federal grants and tax exemptions to insure that projects served some public purpose, especially to "benefit persons of low and moderate income," were eliminated, leaving poorer people out in the cold, while exacerbating existing inequalities.  Governments scurried around inventing ways to auction off reconstruction projects to private interests by issuing tax exempt "Private Activity Bonds."  These were soon gloriously renamed "Liberty Bonds," though the unasked question was: Whose liberty?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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