A Neglected Field: The History of Natural Disasters

John C. Burnham, April 1988

I was introduced to this field one evening in March 1964, when I received a telephone call from a colleague in the Disaster Research Center at my university—Ohio State. He asked me if I would like to join a team being sent to study the terrible earthquake that had just struck Alaska. The sociologists on the team thought that it might be useful to have a historian’s perspective as they studied the disaster.

I knew some general trends in historical changes in scientists’ ideas about the causes of natural disasters, but I possessed only the most global information about the history of unanticipated and deleterious “events,” as sociologists were wont to call them. I, therefore, immediately rushed to the library to learn what historians had written about natural disasters. Despite much digging, I found that my ignorance was not unique and that historians had in fact written virtually nothing on the subject. Almost the whole of the literature consisted essentially of compilations of disasters for the entertainment of children or accounts written for more adult aficionados of destruction and/or terror. There were some local histories—everyone had heard of the Johnstown flood and the San Francisco earthquake—but such local accounts were largely antiquarian in tendency and did not help in my quest. Most historical narratives of disasters were written by journalists who saw that the techniques of sensationalistic reporting could be applied to the past so as to create commercially profitable writings. Indeed, the only truly relevant major scholarly study that my search turned up was T.D. Kendrick’s account of the religious consequences of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

I regretfully concluded that a historian, even a historian of science, in fact had nothing to contribute to the disaster research team. The sociologists were already asking systematically such obvious questions as I would have asked about the social impact of events on the individual sufferers and especially upon social structures. The subsequent sociological monographs examined ways in which governments and voluntary organizations reacted and changed, and researchers also examined the phenomenon of looting to discover if it usually occurs after widespread destruction (it does not) and how social reactions to events differ from one culture to another. Sociologists even looked into attitudes toward such disasters and warning systems. It was in the face of such thorough investigations that I decided to stay home and read what others had to say about the Alaska earthquake.

But, I was alerted to the potentialities of the subject for historians and began to collect references that touched on the history of natural disasters. Over the years I have found a substantial number of articles and, rarely, books in the historical literature, averaging perhaps one or two a year, mainly in local history journals. In addition, of course, there have continued to be publications by nonspecialist writers—still usually journalists—and by scientists with their own types of inquiries, chiefly trying, on the basis of past records, to assess the probability of a volcano eruption or some other impending calamity. And, of course, the sociologists and geographers have continued to investigate the untoward events, of which 20 or more a year, on the average, occur in the United States alone.

Recently I had an opportunity to lead a graduate research seminar on the subject of the history of natural disasters. My particular qualification to offer such a course, other than years of collecting references, was my work in medical history, which provides a close analog, namely disease. But even epidemic diseases are of no historical significance unless they caused important changes in society. The influenza epidemic that followed World War I, for example, has been studied by numerous scholars. In the United States, despite great public and media attention at the time, no lasting social effects have as yet been shown, and so the epidemic is important only as it affected demography, which did not constitute a very great historical impact. In other countries, however, the influenza epidemic had major effects; in Australia, for example, the entire public health apparatus was changed because of the experience.

In a similar way, then, historical standards require that the significance of a natural disaster be measured by social effects rather than by the scale of natural change. (The seminar was timed so that many people still had the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in mind, and it provided a good example of how hardheaded historians must be, for it showed that, on the one hand, relatively little social change occurred in the immediate environs in the state of Washington, but, on the other hand, the ramifying impact of the dust from the eruption is still being calculated.) The effects of earthquakes are in fact not much different from those of an epidemic-regardless of casualties, there may be no lasting social effects of any magnitude.

But in addition to obvious effects, natural disasters often have the accidental effect of revealing the makeup of the social fabric as people reacted under extreme stress. How soon, for example, after death and destruction came into people’s lives, did they begin to attempt to relate systematically to others in the community? Indeed, what communities were relevant to them? Were old social channels reestablished or were they in fact relatively superficial and easy to destroy or supplant? Such concerns of sociologists can take on greatly increased meaning when experienced from the past is added to recent findings.

In order to alert colleagues to opportunities in this field, then, I now report upon my experience with my seminar rather than upon a field trip to a devastated area. Fortunately for teaching strategy, by the time that I was able to offer the seminar, there was available, and in print, a pioneer scholarly study of a disaster in the United States, James Lal Penick, Jr.’s book, The New Madrid Earthquakes 2nd ed., 1981). We all read that work as a model from which to gain not only a sense of how to approach the subject but as ideas of how historical inquiry should proceed. To that foundation we added the analysis that sociologists had been doing for many years, including Thomas E. Drabek’s “Methodology of Studying Disasters” in the American Behavior Scientist for 1970 and E.L. Quarantelli, ed., Disasters: Theory and Research (1978). The total result was that although the subject matter was fresh, research could nevertheless proceed in a disciplined manner.

I did restrict the subjects for seminar papers to natural disasters, rather than disasters that involved human agency in any way, despite the fact that excellent models exist, such as that set by Christine Meisner Rosen, The Limits of Power: Great Fires and the Process of City Growth in America (1986). While sociologists lump all disasters together, my scanning of the historical literature suggested that questions of responsibility and chains of causes came into man-made disasters and removed them from the clear category of “acts of God,” which are so conventionally understood as such. The students, therefore, choose to work on earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and tsunamis. They could also have worked on other suitable and comparable subjects: blizzards, hail storms, fires set off by lightning, landslides, meteorite impacts, volcanic eruptions and one interesting possible conclusion, droughts, about which historians have in fact written, but usually without treating them as disasters as such (one well known interpretation is Richard G. Robbins, Jr., Famine in Russia, 1891–1892: The Imperial Government Responds to a Crisis [1975]).

The seminar members decided in the beginning that one defines a disaster in terms of a common sense scale of natural destruction and social effects. Sociologists have struggled for years to reach a precise definition of a disaster. One scholar suggested that any event that killed at least a hundred people or did a million dollars’ damage should be classified as a disaster. Another differentiated between accidents (1–999 people dead or immediately endangered), disasters (1,000–1,000,000 people involved), and catastrophes (over 1,000,000 people killed or seriously endangered). Building on such efforts, Harold D. Foster in the Professional Geographer in 1976 tried to develop a stress scale to quantify the point at which an event became a disaster, suggesting that death of a spouse could be counted 100 points; injury or illness of a close family member, 44; personal injury or illness, 53; loss of employment, 47; change in residence, 20; and so on. His calculations, while ingenious, have not been widely utilized. Red Cross officials, who have a certain expertise in the area, simply consider any event that causes them to aid more than five families a disaster.

The seminar had the advantage of reading an unpublished paper written by Russell Dynes, “Definitions of Disaster—Initial Considerations,” from the Disaster Research Center. Dynes points out that in practice people have various bases for defining disaster: the agency, such as a hurricane or fire; the physical impact of the agent, that is, the destruction; the social impact of the event; and the ways in which different groups view the effects of the event. While Dynes’s and other such ideas were useful in suggesting to seminar members how to approach the idea of disaster, we found that in fact fine distinctions were unnecessary. Each project in practice demanded whatever kinds of considerations were useful, and people at the time had in each case labeled the event a disaster.

I did not restrict the subjects of the students to any period or civilization, as long as adequate primary sources existed; by chance the people in the course chose topics out of 19th- and 20th-century United States and Mexico. For a majority of the students, a comparative approach appeared to promise best results. Natural disasters in fact permit very revealing comparisons—between similar events in different time periods and/or different localities, so that institutions can be compared (one comparative paper was on earthquakes on the Pacific Coast, another on tornadoes in rural Indiana). Disasters even permit a sharp look into more general historical trends—why, one student asked, did some small urban centers survive hurricane destruction and why did inhabitants abandon others? The answers pertain directly to the question of why settlements occurred or were abandoned in general. Still another student compared the myth and the reality of a Vermont flood, with surprising findings about the pervasiveness of national, as opposed to local, determinants of social change. All of the students came away with insights into the persistence of human institutions but also with questions about the permanence of community arrangements.

Seminar members confirmed important conclusions that disaster sociologists had gained from working with recent events: disasters tended to be defined by the media and by existing institutions. Moreover, people sending aid in disasters are often not very helpful, to say the least, but such people tend to leave records justifying what they did. Yet the historical approach added still more, and the work of the seminar showed that the perspective of time and the understanding of institutional development that historians bring adds to the study of the subject. Bickering among survivors and relief workers, for instance, means much more when put in cultural and institutional context, beyond immediate sociological analysis. What happens, to cite one case, when relief workers represent a community that is a commercial rival to a town hit by a hurricane? Or, again, historical change can add dimensions to events—the contrast before and after the development of government public relations, for example—and contribute to understanding the technical and attitudinal developments, to cite another instance, that facilitated real changes in tsunami warnings.

What was most striking to me in this experience, however, and what motivated me to offer this report, was the reaction not of my students but of my colleagues who hear about the seminar. Without regard to specialty, they welcomed a new way of viewing events, whether it brought to mind the way that floods showed clearly how the modernizing bureaucracy of Louis XIV’s France depended upon communications, or the implications of the weather alterations wrought by volcanic ash on localities far from an eruption.

For historians, then, as I have suggested, viewing human institutions under the stress of a natural disaster provides a test of those institutions that otherwise would be unobtainable from the past. What better demonstration of what the population was socialized into than the discovery in 1933 San Diego that crowds displaced by an earthquake responded to movies but not to organized activities?

Other questions, too, have arisen when the subject of disasters has come up. What, for example, is the consequence of the fact that some areas, such as European Russia, have been relatively free from earthquakes, floods, and such (in obvious contrast to Siberia)? What do preparations for the unexpected signify, perhaps as a modernizing society attempted to control floods and take precautions against exposure to tsunamis and hurricanes? Similarly, what should be made of fatalism in the face of disaster (such as the way in which flooding was at one time part of life in China)?

In the years since I first started watching for scholarly work on natural disasters, a few historians, besides Penick, have done work on specific events and the sense that can now be made of them. In 1982, the American Historical Association annual meeting included a session on American disaster prevention and relief, and Alan Clive has published from that session his paper on Johnstown and flood control (Pennsylvania Heritage, 1982). But altogether the history of disasters constitutes a remarkably neglected field.

Yet, I am struck by the fact that the reaction of most of my colleagues who have heard of the idea has been to welcome the study of natural disasters as an additional tool to aid other kinds of historical inquiry, to get perspective on the strength and nature of particular institutions, the evolution of which is already under study. Does any other such convincing text exist, for example, for the changing strength over the years of family ties? Such an auxiliary use of unique material is both shrewd and of course commendable and is justified by the experience and findings of members of my seminar.

But, I think it worthy of further consideration that pattern of human reactions to natural disasters in the past may have interest also in and of themselves. Geographer Kenneth Hewitt, for example, writing in Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology (1983), argues that the present technocratic approach of students of disasters reflects a bias that denies anything but an acceptance of the act-of-God mentality along with purely technical approaches to anticipating such events and rationalizing them afterwards. Hewitt argues that disasters—the human perceptions and impacts—are the products of historical as well as natural processes and that they are in fact a part of normal life in a culture.

If Hewitt is correct, historians are obliged to help furnish the historical meaning of deleterious events. At the very least, it behooves historians to keep a watchful eye on natural disasters as a category that can be useful and may be intrinsically of great importance. It might also be a good idea, for those with a taste for it, to recapture some very interesting historical material from nonspecialist writers.

John C. Burnham is a professor of history at the Ohio State University. He received his PhD from Stanford in 1958.