Blaming Nature: When ‘Natural’ Disasters Are Caused By Us

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When calamity strikes in the Mississippi basin, our first impulse is to shudder at the uncontrollable fury of nature.
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The left scale shows river elevation in feet above sea level, while the bottom scale shows river miles to the confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois.
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“Mississippi River Tragedies,” by Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer, explores how American law helps shape our attitudes toward ‘natural’ disasters.

American engineers have done astounding things to bend the Mississippi River to their will: forcing one of its tributaries to flow uphill, transforming over a thousand miles of roiling currents into a placid staircase of water, and wresting the lower half of the river apart from its floodplain. American law has aided and abetted these feats. But despite our best efforts, so-called “natural disasters” continue to strike the Mississippi basin, as raging floodwaters decimate waterfront communities and abandoned towns literally crumble into the Gulf of Mexico. In some places, only the tombstones remain, leaning at odd angles as the underlying soil erodes away. Mississippi River Tragedies (NYU Press, 2014), by Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer,  reveals that it is seductively deceptive—but horribly misleading—to call such catastrophes “natural.”

Drive through any suburban area and you are likely to find subdivi­sions with names like “Oak Tree Farms,” “Meadow View,” and “Eagle’s Nest.” But try to find the features that inspired those names, and you may discover that the trees, meadows, and nests have given way to farms, neighborhoods, and lush lawns. Are those places still “natural,” even though sod has replaced meadow, and dog houses have replaced bird nests? Walk into any grocery store and there will probably be an aisle dedicated to natural foods. Does that suggest, somehow, that the stock filling the rest of the aisles is “unnatural”?

The fuzzy line between natural and unnatural reflects ambivalent attitudes toward nature. We idealize it, naming our neighborhoods and our healthiest foods in its honor. And yet we also see nature as an adversary to be conquered, blaming it for such “natural disasters” as floods, storms, hurricanes, and erosion. Sometimes, we even blame the Almighty and attribute our woes to “acts of God.”

Nowhere is this tension clearer than in the Mississippi River basin. The great river and its tributaries flow through, drain, or form the bor­der of more than thirty states. Overall, the Mississippi drains about 40 percent of the continental United States, from Montana to New York, from New Mexico to North Carolina, and from Minnesota down to Louisiana. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of managing the river, describes it as one of the nation’s “out­standing assets.” But the Corps also asserts that the Mississippi, in its natural condition, represents a “liability . . . [that poses] a threat to the security of the valley through which it flows.”

When calamity strikes in the Mississippi basin, our first impulse is to shudder at the uncontrollable fury of nature. We sense, deep in our gut, that it was only a matter of time before the Mississippi unleashed a natural disaster, revealing itself as the deadly liability recognized by the Corps. And what’s worse, we fear that we have no control over the disaster and that we are powerless to stop it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

War in the Mississippi Basin

The Mississippi River flows through one of the most highly engi­neered river basins in the world. Today, if you were to fly over the river, you might think that the upper Mississippi was not a river at all, but rather a chain of large lakes, one thousand miles long and as much as three miles wide. Concrete chambers — locks — punctuate the upper Mississippi, serving as a watery staircase that allows boats of all shapes and sizes to navigate the river’s uneven course. Crafts headed down­stream wait in one lock as the dam opens and water drains into the lock below, and then continue on their journey when the levels are equal­ized. To travel upstream, the process is reversed: boats wait in the lower lock, floating up as dam-released water flows in from above. There are twenty-nine pairs of such locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, extending from northern Minnesota past St. Louis to the mouth of the Ohio River at Cairo (pronounced Kay-roh), Illinois. This river segment has been transformed so dramatically that it resembles a set of steps more than a natural water body. The architect of the transformation, the Army Corps of Engineers, refers to its handiwork as a “stairway of water.”

The locks are a marvel of modern engineering. But even before they were built, engineers had attempted to tame the river by dredging mud and silt from its channels and by blanketing its shoreline with levees, floodwalls, jetties, and other structures designed to control floods. Now, a 1,607-mile levee system lines the lower Mississippi River, from Cairo all the way downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. An additional 596 miles of levees extend along southern tributaries of the river.

A bird’s-eye view of the Mississippi delta, where the river meets the gulf, reveals multiple hues of blues and browns, where freshwater mixes with seawater and where silt, sand, and clay are deposited, layer by layer, creating side streams called distributaries that carry water and sediment to the ocean. In addition to these natural distributaries are channels that have been dredged into the delta to promote shipping and oil and gas development. Situated between the distributaries and channels are low-lying pockets of land created from river deposits — bayous, marshes, and coastal wetlands — that look like the webbing of a duck’s foot.

The Corps of Engineers has struggled mightily to control the Mis­sissippi — an effort it likens to war. The metaphor is not surprising, given the Corps’ military pedigree. On the eve of the American Revo­lution, the Continental Congress established not only the Army, but also named a chief of engineers. (Colonel Richard Gridley, appointed in 1775, was the first.) Since that time, the chief and his Corps — made up of both military and civilian personnel — have provided engineering support for military and civilian matters. In the Corps’ words, its mis­sion is to “[p]rovide vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters.”

The Corps takes the risk-reduction aspect of its mission seriously, particularly when it comes to the Mississippi basin. In vivid prose, unexpected in a bureaucratic document, the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division describes the focus of its work as the “contumacious” Mis­sissippi River. Explaining the difficulty of its task, the Corps refers to the river as both “beast” and “benefactor”: “This Janus-faced colossus periodically seeks to challenge the flood control system imposed upon it, while its opposite profile is a vital waterway network that extends into the heart of the nation — a true cornerstone of our economy.”

“Contumacious”? “Janus-faced colossus”? The Army does not mince words — or tread lightly — when it comes to battle with what it perceives as the stubborn and willfully disobedient river. Clearly, the Mississippi River has been modified by many human hands, including those of the Corps, following the instructions of Congress, responding to the will of the electorate. But just as clearly, some of those efforts have backfired.

Law and Unnatural Disasters

To examine the relationship between human action and disaster, legal scholars have called for the development of a new area of study. In 2006, professors Daniel A. Farber and Jim Chen published Disasters and the Law: Katrina and Beyond, a law school textbook that consid­ers legal rules that deal with catastrophic risks, including prevention, insurance, emergency response, compensation, and rebuilding strate­gies. As the authors explained, “we are all stunned by each new disaster, but rapidly come to view it as exceptional and never to be repeated. Thus, we fail to prepare for the next one.” Instead of this insufficient, piecemeal response, the authors highlight the need for a comprehensive legal approach to major disasters. The developing field has come to be known as disaster law.

The systematic study of disaster poses intellectual puzzles that involve law and a variety of other academic disciplines. One of the thorniest questions — and one of the main themes of this book — is where to draw the line between “unnatural” and “natural” disasters. This challenge was taken up by historian Ted Steinberg in Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. Steinberg traces the practice of blaming nature for calamity to the late nineteenth century, when the wide-spread belief that disasters were God’s punish­ment for sin gradually gave way to the notion of nature as culprit in a shift that neatly excused humans from moral or other accountability for harm. As Steinberg argues, “This constrained vision of responsi­bility, this belief that such disasters stem solely from random natural forces, is tantamount to saying that they lie entirely outside human history, beyond our influence, beyond moral reason, beyond control.” Blaming nature also proved to be politically expedient, as powerful figures sought to “normalize calamity.” By convincing us that we should expect random strikes of nature, Steinberg concludes, our leaders “have been able to rationalize the economic choices that help to explain why the poor and people of color — who have largely borne the brunt of these disasters — tend to wind up in harm’s way.”

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disasterby Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer, and published by New York University Press.

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