From the Archives: Acts of God?

The cover of Southern Exposure, Volume XXXII, 2004, titled "Acts of God?"

Last week, an unusual December tornado ripped through four states, flattening houses, businesses, nursing homes, warehouses, and entire downtowns across 250 miles of Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It was part of a tornado outbreak that killed at least 88 people; in Kentucky alone, at least 74 people are dead and over 120 unaccounted for. Along with Hurricane Ida and a deadly February cold snap in Texas, it's likely to be the 19th billion-dollar disaster in the U.S. this year.

Scientists say it's still hard to make a direct connection between unseasonal or more severe tornadoes and climate change. But that doesn't absolve human action — or inaction — from playing a role in the immense damage and death caused by so-called "natural disasters." Failing infrastructure, extractive industries that reshape the landscape, corporate policies that endanger workers, housing built in floodplains, class inequities that determine how structurally sound someone's home is — all of these impact how disasters strike and who they hurt the most.

In Kentucky, the Mayfield Consumer Products candle company required employees at its factory — including seven incarcerated people from the county jail — to work during the tornado and told them they would be fired if they left, according to a class action lawsuit filed by surviving employees. At least eight workers at the factory died when the building collapsed; while the jailed laborers were spared, a deputy overseeing them was killed. In Illinois, at least six people died in an Amazon warehouse that also collapsed during the tornado. One employee who died in the collapse reportedly texted his girlfriend, "Amazon won't let us leave."  

In 2004, Southern Exposure, the print magazine forerunner to Facing South, devoted an entire issue to the question, "How natural are natural disasters?" One feature by current Facing South editorial director Sue Sturgis showed how hurricanes devastated a historically Black Eastern North Carolina town made more flood-prone by infrastructure projects and deforestation. In another story, investigative journalist Penny Loeb trekked across West Virginia to show that extractive industries like strip mining and logging had made flooding in some of the state's poorest communities much more severe. You can read "Fear and Flooding in North Carolina" here, and "Deluge Without End" here.

Below we are reprinting the publisher's note from that issue, written by current Facing South publisher Chris Kromm. Seventeen years later, as the effects of climate change and decades of poor, sometimes willfully ignorant planning become all the more severe, we think it resonates more than ever.

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Acts of God?

By Chris Kromm, Southern Exposure

As I write, Hurricane Jeanne — the last of 2004's historic and seemingly endless procession of storms — is leaving its finishing touches on the Carolinas before continuing its lazy march northward. Jeanne promises to deliver our Northern neighbors little more than a few gusty rains — a far cry from the devastation witnessed in Florida and other points South.

It's true that this year has been unusual: it's the first time since record-keeping began in 1851 that four hurricanes have hit Florida in the same Atlantic hurricane season (from June to November), filling the minds of more than a few Sunshine State residents with apocalyptic visions and leaving them to wonder what they did to deserve this.

Yet for all of 2004's storm surprises, the stories that have emerged from Florida's wreckage are also eerily familiar, even predictable. We read of low-income communities with sub-standard housing — often trailer parks — leveled by wind and rain. We hear of posh beachfront developments laid waste due to their cozy proximity to the ocean, while owners demand government bailouts for the "unforeseen" damage. On occasion, we learn that wastewater pools and similar facilities have overflowed — usually because they weren't built with severe weather in mind — leaking contaminants into local water supplies and endangering thousands.

"Strictly speaking," says the United Nations in their International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, "there are no such things as natural disasters." There are only natural hazards, the U.N. says — which only become "disasters" if communities are vulnerable or unprepared for whatever nature has in store.

So there's nothing "natural" about the fact that Hurricane Jeanne, while killing 70 people and knocking out electricity for 1.5 million in Florida, claimed the lives of over 2,000 people in Haiti, a country where decades of economic and social devastation have rendered the country uniquely vulnerable to powerful storms.

As the stories in this issue of Southern Exposure show, there's nothing new about how corporate leaders and state boosters underplay the role of human forces — especially race and class — in determining who suffers (and who gains) when nature strikes.

These elites have also been predictably reluctant to acknowledge how greed and bad policy — as manifested in activities like wide-scale deforestation, mountaintop removal, and destruction of coastal wetlands — help trigger disasters by making natural systems more fragile, putting not only the environment but entire communities at risk.

As the staggering impact of humans on the planet grows, our ability to understand and confront the role of political and economic choices in creating disasters will only become more vital.

Whether or not the flurry of hurricanes that battered the South this year is the direct result of human-caused global climate change, as several scientists have suggested, may never be conclusively demonstrated. But there is little dispute that our country's tragic and unnecessary addiction to polluting energy sources will set in motion enormous climate changes with permanent and severe repercussions — not just during hurricane season, but every day of the year.

The sooner we stop seeing these developments as "Acts of God" and admit that they are the byproducts of policies that we can and must change, the better off we'll be. Indeed, our survival may depend on it.