Meaning of Disaster

By Kelly Wakefield

Hurrican Irene, the tropical storm which this week hit the headlines due to its path along the USA’s east coast has to date killed 21 people.  The media has been reporting on the devastation that the ‘historic floods’ have caused as 5 million homes have lost power in the USA  and is currently moving along the north east of Canada.  However, it is the state of Vermont which was hit with the worst flooding it had witnessed in  almost 100 years.  Earlier in the year, tornado strikes were reported in Joplin, Missouri, USA and are relatively frequent according to a University of Minnesota geographer, Kenny Blumenfield.  The academic stressed the need for emergency planners to prepare for the worst as there have been 300 urban tornadoes since 1990 and twisters occuring at an unusually high rate this year.

So, with this information in mind, one always thinks about the human cost to these natural disasters, as well as the environmental and material costs associated with the damage.  Furedi (2007) discusses  how adverse events such as diasters are interpreted through a system of meaning provided by culture and that historically research into society’s response to disaster provides examples of community resilience.  However, since the 1980s, numerous researchers have challenged this account that such incidents result in long term damage to the community.  One only has to look at Hurrican Katrina in 2005 and the damage that it caused to all of the communities that it hit, with the costliest in lives in Louisiana.  The resilience of the people affected cannot be measured on any scale as news stories pop up from time to time about the effects that Katrina is still having on those that were in her path six years ago. Furedi (2007) argues that community response to a disaster is far more likely to be defined by its vulnerability than its resilience suggesting that the shift from the expectation of resilience to that of vulnerability is best understood as an outcome of a changing cultural conceptualisation of adversity.

However we explain our adversity and response to the natural disasters that can define an area’s history such as in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the need to prepare for the worst is always the case because we are vulnerable.

Furedi, F (2007) “The Changing Meaning of Disaster”. Area, vol. 39, issue 4, pp 482–489.

 BBC. “Irene: Vermont in flood as US counts storm cost“.

 Cathy Wurzer and Paul Huttner. ” Is tornado activity increasing in Minnesota?” MPR News

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