INCONVERSATION

Disaster, Fear of Chaos, and Spontaneous Organization: Lessons of Hurricane Harvey

NATALIE BAKER with Sammy Feldblum

Illustration by Aditi Shah

When Hurricane Harvey hit land, and Natalie Baker hopped on a boat to strike out into the storm, she was venturing into both physical calamity and her academic dreamland. Baker, professor of security studies at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, has spent her career studying the construction of social order. Her research focuses on moments of breakdown, from Hurricane Katrina to 2014’s Ebola epidemic to the rise of ISIS, to illuminate the narratives undergirding how Americans conceive of society. Harvey offered her that opportunity in the most familiar of settings. She has since received a National Science Foundation grant to study disaster preparedness and response in communities affected by the storm. In early November, Sammy Feldblum caught up with Baker about her research and her experience when the rains came.

Sammy Feldblum (Rail): What was your experience of Harvey like?

Natalie Baker: It’s a long story. I live in the Woodlands, and I have this cousin who lives a little further south of me in an area called Spring, which ended up flooding pretty badly. And so he, myself, and his friend went on kayaks, and tried to help rescue.

It was crazy. I’ve never been in a kayak before, but I have light search-and-rescue training, and I also studied conflict and war, and journalism in those contexts. A lot of my research has focused on these emergent groups that come about in disaster situations, like we saw in Harvey. Like those citizen-rescues. And I was like, “I can’t sit here and know all this and not do anything.” So we went out, and it was surreal—it was like a river in some places, up maybe, I don’t know, twelve feet or so.

My cousin had a client who lived in a flooded neighborhood, and he wanted to go check on him. So we got to that area, and there were a bunch of boats and a couple fire trucks. I went up immediately to the fire personnel and asked him what was going on, and he said, “We’re not here in an official capacity, this is all citizen-based, we’re just kind of hanging out, seeing what’s going on.” There was a guy directing traffic, and I was like, “Well, who’s that guy?” And they said, “We don’t know, he’s just a guy directing traffic.”

The fire guy told me, “Yeah, you should go talk to him, because he seems like he’s in charge of things.” Strange. Okay, I’ll do that. So I asked him, “Hey, what’s going on,” and he said, “We need as many boats as we possibly can get, there’s a bunch of people in the apartments over there, and there’s kind of a flotilla that’s forming.” So we went up on kayaks so we could get animals or small children. Again, I had never been in a kayak before. I didn’t have a paddle, so I used my hands to paddle.

When we launched, it was pouring. The water levels were increasing, and we noticed that there was a current. So we just went down to this apartment complex, and boated through, and people were on their second floor balconies, just kind of standing there. We asked, “Is everybody okay, does anybody need help?” There was an elderly woman standing with a pet, and they were shocked-looking. They were like, “We’re okay, we’re okay.” But it became too dangerous for us, so we had to head back. My cousin went off on his own with a jet-ski, but we had to get towed back by another jet-ski because the current was too strong.

It ended up that my cousin and the jet-ski both flipped over. The jet-ski had to be taken back by a larger motorboat that was out with a bunch of other people. I study this, so it was not intellectually surprising, but to see this all… I’ve been through hurricanes before, and they were bad, like we lost electricity for a week, and we can deal with that. But here, you know people are going to die, and people are going to lose their houses.

That’s not the only part of my story. My other cousin lived in a part of Houston called Energy Corridor and Memorial West. It was flooded because they released the Addicks Dam water into the neighborhood that had never really experienced a lot of flooding before. His house got twelve feet of water, and his husband died, drowned because of the flooding. His body wasn’t recovered for a week because it was dangerous for the rescuers to go in, and so he was just floating there.

Rail: Oh, my god. I’m so sorry to hear that.

Baker: Yeah, it’s been a crazy experience. So my cousin is staying with me, since he lost his house, and just going through the process of how to deal with having no home, no car, no husband. Everything in his life is completely upended. 

Rail: Hearing your story, it sounds like in these chaotic situations, structures and ways of trying to direct the world spring up almost sui generis. There’s a kind of extemporaneous attempt to order things.

Baker: Absolutely. And this is nothing new. We see it in disasters over and over again. What’s interesting to me is that a lot of what the media was saying about Harvey was, “Look at what happened, everybody came together, and there was no sort of social chaos.” But this happened during Katrina. We’ve been talking about this in disaster scholarship since the ‘50s.

But listening to discourses surrounding Harvey, especially here in Texas, they say, “Look at how strong we are, as Houstonians, as Texans, this is a unique experience,” when in fact it’s not. I think that’s actually really dangerous. When you compare this to what happened during Katrina, the media response focused on looting, which barely happens in disasters and barely happened during Katrina, despite the way it was addressed.

That affects how we respond to disasters. And so you can see, in Katrina, this perception that there was social chaos when there was not, and then they bring in a military presence, and treat the citizenry as criminals and/or enemy combatants. The ways in which media represent what happens has a great effect on action. That matters.

Rail: So how then to report on those pro-social moments responsibly, considering that they did happen here? Is the point that media should say, “This is happening here, and in fact this is common”? Recognize it, but recognize that it is not unique?

Baker: Right. I think the disconnect is that the media tend not to go to scholarly experts. You don’t see disaster scholars on CNN saying, “No, this is normal, don’t focus on these things, just focus on allowing for the citizenry to come together and doing what they’re going to do without thinking they’re threatening, without hindering their abilities to respond.” If the public responds in spontaneous ways, and that’s seen as a form of chaos that needs to be managed by disaster management institutions of the government—I completely disagree with that idea. Because the government, or “first responders,” generally aren’t the ones who respond first in disasters. It’s the community.

And I think if there was a better bridge between experts—actual experts, and not just some person from a think tank—then it would be better. This is something I’m dealing with in all aspects of my scholarship. Media take great liberties with what they present to the public. And that’s dangerous, because most of the public comes to understand these experiences—disaster, war, terrorism—through the lens of the media, rather than engagement with experts.

Rail: In this case it is a delicate balance, because one of the big imperatives of media in covering something like Harvey is speaking with folks on the ground, people who are being flooded out or what have you. So is the expert perspective one that allows for looking at more immediate happenings through a broader lens?

Baker: Absolutely. And also we have to recognize that if you have a man-on-the-street perspective, if you just grab the first available person, as often happens in situations that are rapidly unfolding, you could find some guy that says, “There’s looters, all over the place. I heard it through this kid who talked to this lady on the street. I think the issue is the need for more critical engagement with the people on the ground, but also realizing that the ways in which news is reported are influenced by social norms and values, rather than facts. I’ll say that media does its best to be unbiased, but we’re human beings—it’s impossible for us not to be biased.

Also, where is the population getting their information from? They’re getting it from the news, and also from movies. All of us think we know that movies aren’t real, but no. Every year I get a new batch of students, and I’m like, “What happens during disasters?” “Chaos! People are going crazy, or people are just standing there not doing anything! The police, or the Rock, pops in and rescues everybody.” Seriously. It’s hugely problematic, not only for disaster, but for our understanding of things like war, and terrorism in particular these days. But also diseases like Ebola, like we saw in 2014. Part of the research that was funded was really taking a magnifying glass to systems.

We have a security system that’s basically built on what happened during 9/11. And so if you feel that you’re constantly threatened by disasters, or by ISIS, or whomever, then you’re more willing to let go of those freedoms that we hold “dear”. And we see more of that day after day after day. So that’s another larger-level issue.

Rail: And that feeling is something that the media can contribute to through breathless or sensational reporting.

Baker: Of course. It’s like, “Let’s go down to Houston, let’s go find some looters, or some people who have seen looters, and let’s focus on that because it’s interesting to people.” The perfect example: I always ask students what images they remember of the response on the ground in 9/11. What do you think of—people with the dust on them, right? Throwing themselves out of buildings, and everything like that. But the thing that we don’t see is that within a nine hour period, there was an enormous evacuation of people from the island of Manhattan to other areas surrounding—I don’t remember how many, like three hundred thousand people? This was spontaneously organized by citizens. And you never hear about it. Every time I talk to a group, whether it be of scholars or students, maybe one person has heard of this. So it’s this idea that disasters or inclement, destructive situations are this catalyst for terrorizing and fear, and I argue—and others argue actually—the opposite.

Rail: It sounds like what is being constructed is the idea that around the bounds of social order there is chaos, and not only chaos, but violent, dangerous chaos—always waiting in the wings, ready to pounce on human affairs. That’s the undercurrent of the narratives that are peddled after these disasters. 

Baker: Oh yeah. 

Rail: So, why?

Baker: Basically it’s an issue of power. Maybe not overt power, but power that’s distributed within our society within this neoliberal, money-oriented Western world that we live in. Maybe not intentionally, but it collectively seeks to marginalize those who put the system at risk.

It goes back to the Cold War, when the United States established itself as a power—this idea that our power as a nation comes from our ability to control threats to our country. The Cold War and 9/11 put those in question. Ever since then, we’ve had this gigantic security apparatus that provides an illusion that we have some sort of control over external threats, or even internal threats. When it becomes clear that human behavior is, for the most part, not threatening in these situations, this whole thing crumbles. There is an illusion of safety built into this idea that we’re constantly threatened, by external things generally, or internal things, like Black Lives Matter, or things that put the idea of our hegemony ostensibly in question.

Disasters happen. But things that actually kill us are, you know, cancer or heart disease, rather than ISIS. For the most part, we spend much more money on things like the military and international security than we do trying to fix our infrastructure or things that are important to disaster preparedness.

Our idea of preparedness is really mitigation, securing that external environment from threats. But if you really want to solve the problem with disasters, you’ve got to solve the problem of marginalization—poverty and racism. These are contributors to the aftereffects of disaster. How will you mitigate disasters until you start to look at those things?

Rail: And when you’re talking about looting, say, that sort of marginalization is really what comes into play.

Baker: Yeah, absolutely. Looting is mostly a threat to black people. That’s the thing with institutional racism. Populations of color tend to be affected more by disasters, not only in the United States, but in our territories—like Puerto Rico. That could be certain neighborhoods, the elderly, and people with low socio-economic status, which are generally people of color in our country. That’s really a glaring issue that needs to be solved. We go out and say, “Hey guys, why don’t you prepare for disaster by getting a kit, and collecting water, and things like that?” Things don’t work that way. It’s an illusion that perpetuates the ideas in the system.

Rail: It sounds like you have some beef with the mythmaking that happens around this stuff. That it’s distorting.

Baker: It is distorting, and that distortion affects human action. That’s why it’s dangerous. There’s always this move to restrict freedoms when you feel at risk from terrible crisis. And that’s always the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

Contributor

Samuel Feldblum

SAMUEL FELDBLUM lives in North Carolina and writes across the South.

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