Why Not Privatize Disaster Response?: The Political Significance of Unnatural Disasters


This is the third of three posts in which What’s Wrong? catches up with the honorees from the American Philosophical Association‘s 2013 Book Prize competition to see what they’ve been working on since then.  The previous posts featured Cara Nine writing about resource rights and Nicole Hassoun writing about reproductive ethics.  This week’s post features What’s Wrong? Advisory Board member Elizabeth Brake, who was honored for her book, Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law (Oxford University Press).  Professor Brake has been thinking about disaster ethics recently and What’s Wrong? is grateful to her for providing the brief post below on that subject.

(image: Katrina)

During the year I spent in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I followed discussions about what had happened there – and what should happen now – with great interest. Clearly, many parties involved before, during and after Katrina acted – or failed to act – culpably, in ways ranging from incompetence and negligence all the way to corruption and malice, and the catastrophe reflected decades, or centuries, of wrongdoing – particularly the legacy of institutional racism. But even if everyone involved had done exactly as they ought to do, some questions still remained puzzling.

Should the city restrict rebuilding in the most vulnerable zones, such as the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview, and relocate homeowners to higher ground? What impact would such resettlement have on local communities – including longstanding African-American neighborhoods – and could the value of such communities offset the risk of further harm, and the considerable investment, of rebuilding in flood-prone areas? Could keeping order justify preventing residents from returning to their homes for six weeks after the flood – or imposing martial law? Were the nurses who euthanized patients without consent, in conditions where the patients would have died more painfully otherwise, guilty of murder – or were their actions mitigated by the catastrophic conditions? And a question looming large in everyone’s minds: should New Orleans be rebuilt at all, given the high risk of a similar event occurring in the not-too-distant future?

Such questions prompted me to start thinking about a new research project in disaster ethics. While this marks a shift from my previous work on marriage and family, in fact there are continuities – particularly regarding the nature of state action in an area characterized by social inequality and vulnerability. In my work on marriage, I was interested in how the state sustained legal (and indirectly social) structures which marginalized and oppressed women and sexual minorities – as well as people whose lives did not fit the marital paradigm. In the new work, I’m interested in different forms of vulnerability.

It’s striking how little philosophical discussion there has been on domestic policy on natural disasters and other hazards and catastrophes (as distinct from work on international eco-refugees). But there is a vast quantity of literature in law, sociology, history, and other disciplines. As I started to read more about disasters, I realized that an adequate approach to the topic needed to start with two oft-reiterated themes of disaster studies: first, as Neil Smith writes, “there’s no such thing as a natural disaster,” and second, as Naomi Zack puts it in her book on ethics in disasters, “disaster magnifies social inequality.”[1]

The unnaturalness of disaster applies not just to their origins, but to their effects. Many so-called “natural disasters” are caused by human actions, including regulatory failure. For example, more severe hurricanes, such as Katrina, are an effect of climate change; the wetlands outside New Orleans which function as a giant sponge, soaking up storm surges, were decimated by pipelines built by corporations; and the levees – which were the condition of living and building in some areas at all – were inadequately maintained. The devastation wrought by disasters and similar events is a function of infrastructure – whether buildings are designed and built to withstand earthquakes, whether cities have adequate flood protection – or escape routes. In almost every case, the devastation of disasters is a function of human choices.

Second, disaster researchers emphasize the close ties between disaster and inequality. Whether one is more likely to be a victim of disaster in the first place is a function of socioeconomic – and racial – inequality, as is the speed of response by authorities. Socioeconomic inequality affects whether someone has the means to evacuate, networks in other cities to assist in relocating, and funds, and insurance, to rebuild.[2]

These facts are salient in considering the state’s role in disaster preparedness and prevention, response, and rebuilding – addressing a question raised in the 2012 U.S. presidential election: why not just privatize disaster insurance? Homeowners and tenants insure their homes against various hazards. Why shouldn’t disaster insurance be acquired privately on this model, rather than being effectively provided by taxpayers through a compulsory federal program? (For example, FEMA provided some resources, albeit ‘too little too late’, for evacuees, as well as the infamous trailers for returning residents.)

To some, asking why the state should coordinate and support disaster response and rebuilding, as well promoting preparedness, might seem unnecessary. It might seem obvious that this is part of the state’s mandate. But answering it will guide the theoretical approach to disaster response, and perhaps shed light on some of the difficult questions with which we started. And it’s worth noting that, in public political discourse, people have been asking this question in different contexts – not just after Katrina, but in New Jersey and New York after Sandy. Why should the government subsidize flood insurance? Why should it rebuild infrastructure in coastal areas to mitigate the effects of likely future flooding in small communities?

Consider this: the state’s mandate for disaster response might seem to issue from its role in providing basic security. To some extent, this seems right. But this doesn’t justify the full extent of FEMA’s activities – the mandate to provide basic security and protect life and limb does not explain why the state should assist rebuilding. Indeed, it might be thought that those assisted in evacuating should later repay the state, as some jurisdictions require reckless mountaineers to repay the costs of search and rescue.

My thought is that the features of disaster noted above start to explain the extent of the state’s role. Disasters, as the result of human actions, and as closely tied to socioeconomic and other forms of inequality, are political through and through. That is, their devastation is a function of the major social and legal institutions structuring society (including the absence or non-enforcement of regulation). And the link to inequality means that whatever principles apply to such inequalities should be applied here. A further distinctive feature of disaster, catastrophe, and other large-scale hazards should be noted in a fuller account: they threaten the very existence of certain communities and the predictability needed for people to make long-term plans.

An analysis focusing on these three features, however, has the effect of depriving disaster of a special political status. If state action responding to disasters is determined by the facts that they issue from human actions (including absence or non-enforcement of relevant law and policy), that they are closely tied to inequality, and that they threaten communities, then similar policies, it would seem, should apply in similar cases. But the same conditions hold in areas hit by economic recession and other processes less dramatic, sudden, or obvious than natural disaster – Detroit, for instance. Disasters have a special hold on the public imagination, inspiring an extraordinary outpouring of sympathy and response. But my initial thinking on this topic suggests that, politically at least, disasters are less special than we think.


[1] Neil Smith, “There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster,” Understanding Katrina, June 11, 2006: http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Smith/, and Naomi Zack, Ethics for Disaster, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011, p. 108.

[2] See Zack, and Paolo Gardoni and Colleen Murphy, “Recovery From Natural and Man-Made Disasters As Capabilities Restoration and Enhancement,” International Journal of Sustainable Development and Planning 3:4 (2008): 317-333, p. 319. In their papers on disaster, Gardoni and Murphy also draw attention to the relevance of inequality and the role of infrastructure to philosophical analysis.

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