The Disaster Experts

The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    The Disaster Experts
    Book Description:

    In the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, many are asking what, if anything, can be done to prevent large-scale disasters. How is it that we know more about the hazards of modern American life than ever before, yet the nation faces ever-increasing losses from such events? History shows that disasters are not simply random acts. Where is the logic in creating an elaborate set of fire codes for buildings, and then allowing structures like the Twin Towers-tall, impressive, and risky-to go up as design experiments? Why prepare for terrorist attacks above all else when floods, fires, and earthquakes pose far more consistent threats to American life and prosperity? The Disaster Experts takes on these questions, offering historical context for understanding who the experts are that influence these decisions, how they became powerful, and why they are only slightly closer today than a decade ago to protecting the public from disasters. Tracing the intertwined development of disaster expertise, public policy, and urbanization over the past century, historian Scott Gabriel Knowles tells the fascinating story of how this diverse collection of professionals-insurance inspectors, engineers, scientists, journalists, public officials, civil defense planners, and emergency managers-emerged as the authorities on risk and disaster and, in the process, shaped modern America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0799-6
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-20)

    “Here is an example of a steel structure subjected to the impacts of a fully loaded, fueled 747 airplane.” With the lights dimmed in the hearing chamber, engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl narrated a computer simulation for the House Science Committee. “Here is the plane approaching that building at 450 miles per hour. Close up here, you can see the damage to the structures.” In the front row sat Sally Regenhard, among the dozens of family members in the audience, clutching a portrait of her son Christian. A “proby,” a probationary firefighter still new to the job, he was covering for...

  5. 1 The Devil’s Privilege
    (pp. 21-61)

    Disasters threatened and destroyed industrializing American cities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with a ferocity that challenged the notion of modernity itself as a sustainable urban condition. Chicago’s infamous 1871 fire leveled whole neighborhoods as well as the entire business district in a three-day blaze. Boston (1872) and Seattle (1889) fared only slightly better. Financial losses from fires in the United States were just under $75 million dollars in 1880 and had more than quadrupled to $330 million in 1920—with over $250 million lost in the 1904 Baltimore conflagration year alone, and $359 million lost in the...

  6. 2 Reforming Fire
    (pp. 62-109)

    Fire in the Conflagration Era exposed a crisis in American government. Expert knowledge and techniques were increasingly available to protect citizens and their property, but government officials struggled to apply the work of the disaster experts to the challenges of reforming the governance of urban fire. The stakes of this failure in policy innovation and enforcement were raised dramatically in the opening years of the twentieth century. The year 1904 alone saw disasters unfolding one after another. Chicago buried the dead of the Iroquois Theater Fire, Baltimore’s downtown harbor district and downtown Rochester both burned down, and the steamship General...

  7. 3 The Invisible Screen of Safety
    (pp. 110-161)

    By World War II, American fire experts would comprise a powerful network, capable of conducting costly risk research and quickly implementing knowledge into the realms of manufacturing, the built environment, and public policy directed at preventing fire disasters. Their “invisible screen of safety” was composed of interlocking techniques, codes, and standards, the results of a half-century’s worth of institution-building and policy advocacy. Invisibility was success for the disaster experts. What had begun as a raucous set of debates in the midst of an urban crisis would die down to a quiet consensus among experts on acceptable levels of fire risk,...

  8. 4 Ten to Twenty Million Killed, Tops
    (pp. 162-208)

    George C. Scott’s performance as General Buck Turgidson in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is notable, hilarious even, for the utter sincerity and optimism with which he rationalizes the mass civilian deaths that will result from a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. Of course, it may have been slightly funnier had Americans not just come right to the brink of such a horror in the Cuban Missile Crisis, though certainly less poignant. The use of nuclear weapons in Japan in 1945 by the United States launched the world...

  9. 5 What Is a Disaster?
    (pp. 209-249)

    In 1951 the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) released a film based on its widely circulated publication Survival Under Atomic Attack.¹ The eight-minute film advises its viewers—Americans facing the first hot moment of the Cold War, with fighting underway on the Korean Peninsula—as to exactly how they can save their lives and protect their families and homes should their city come under nuclear bombardment. In one extended sequence, the narrator explains in detail how a typical family should behave once the air raid alert sounds. “The alert will be a warbling siren blast lasting three minutes,” a...

  10. 6 A Nation of Hazards
    (pp. 250-298)

    What is it like always to live right on the edge of disaster? This is the question raised by Don DeLillo’s 1984 National Book Award-winning novel White Noise. In White Noise the disaster is a “toxic airborne event,” a billowing cloud of “Nyodene D” released in a rail accident exposing the protagonist, a college professor (of Hitler Studies) named Jack Gladney, and his family, as they attempt to evacuate. At the disaster relief center the SIMUVAC civil defense expert is on the scene, annoyed a bit that the reality of the disaster deviated from his computer prediction models, but able...

    (pp. 299-312)

    Sally Regenhard holding a photo of her son, a fireman killed on September 11 (see page 285). It is a moment of collective grief, one in which we ask ourselves: how do we wish to live? Is unwanted death and destruction always the trade-off for technological risk-taking and relentless American modernization? And if it is, then shouldn’t we as a free society discuss that bargain more frequently and more passionately, shouldn’t it be a more central debate in a modern democratic state? Shouldn’t we know more about the people and the institutions that frame these trade-offs for us—the disaster...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 313-344)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 345-347)
    (pp. 348-350)