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Deconstructing “Reconstruction”: Finding Opportunity in Disaster

A Senior Thesis in Peace Studies

Matt Cohen-Price

Goucher College

May, 2010

Updated January, 2011

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Table of Contents

Part I: Introduction
7 Chapter 1: Suffering & Opportunity
Part II: Background
16 Chapter 2: The Disaster of Everyday Life
27 Chapter 3: Structural Violence in Catastrophic Disasters
Part III: Finding Justice
39 Chapter 4: Just Relief—Suggestions for Immediate-Term Disaster Response
56 Chapter 5: Just Reconstruction—Suggestions for Long-Term Disaster Response
Part IV: Case Studies
75 Chapter 6: Bridging the Gap—An Application of Theory to Reality
78 Chapter 7: The City that Care Forgot: New Orleans, Louisiana
100 Chapter 8: Anywhere, USA: Greensburg, Kansas
Part V: Conclusion
116 Chapter 9: “I Wouldn’t Start From Here”
Part VI: Appendix
125 List of Opportunity Objectives
127 List of Interviews
129 References
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To all those who fight every day against the plague

of structural violence without ever having the
language to describe it.

This project would never have been possible without the open hearts and
flexible schedules of the thirty-four residents of New Orleans and Greensburg
who offered me their stories; the generosity of the Goucher Peace Studies
Program; the remarkable guidance of my thesis director Dr. Jennifer Bess; the
continued support of my committee, Ailish Hopper-Meisner and Dr. Rory
Turner; and the close reading of my mother, Barbara Cohen, and my friends,
Scott Davis and Rachel Kriegsman. Thank you.
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Chapter 1: Suffering & Opportunity

“That night, purely from the tornado itself, we were stripped of everything that really doesn’t matter. We lost our
homes, we lost our stuff, we lost our clothes, we lost everything, and personally I lost a grandfather. [It was] an
extremely painful process, absolutely horrific. But from that [came] this wonderful sensation...suddenly, you seem to
gain everything. And it just doesn’t make sense. But nothing really does. As a youth, I lost everything; I hesitate,
[but] I’m actually grateful that it happened.”

Taylor Schmidt
Greensburg, Kansas

This is a study of opportunity.

We live in a world full of beauty and rife with disaster. The beauty is everywhere: in

compassion and cooperation, in ingenuity and in human resilience against all odds. Disaster,

unfortunately, can be found everywhere too. Earthquakes, floods, and outbreaks of disease level

cities, destroy a season’s worth of crops, or create entire populations of refugees. These disasters

capture our attention and pull our heartstrings; when they hit close to home, of course, they do

much more than that. In an instant, they destroy lives, tear apart families, and obliterate

livelihoods and ways of life. These disasters, from the myth of the Great Flood to the atom

bomb, seem to hold an innate, accepted place in both the lore and reality of humankind’s

relationship with nature, and in humankind’s incessant arguments with other members of


But there also exist quieter disasters like famine, poverty, and homelessness. These

insidious societal wrongs cause the same kind of pain and suffering wrought by conspicuous

disasters, yet go generally unnoticed by most of modern civilization. Many scholars argue that

these quiet disasters are actually worse, that they not only cause significantly more physical,

emotional, and social damage, but are actually harder to cure; they have much data on which to
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rest their case. 1 In the words of Rebecca Solnit, “everyday life [has become a social disaster”

(2009:3), but as our norm, this broken social environment is all we know. The damage done is

nearly impossible to measure because we have little with which to compare it.

As a developed, modern society, we make sense of conspicuous disasters in a complex,

but fairly well defined manner. We label them emergencies, both with our language (we speak

with urgency about the need for relief) and politically (our leaders issue official Declarations of

Emergency). Fire departments, emergency medical services, and police respond to varying

degrees, working together under incident management systems defined in codebooks on the city,

state, and national level. Bigger players like the Federal Emergency Management Agency

(FEMA), the National Guard, and the Red Cross may get involved. The news media reports and

replays over and over again the most vivid images they can find, striking chords of sympathy

with those around the country (and perhaps around the world). This in turn drives a cycle of

donations and clothing drives, food drives, and blood drives. Response is focused on immediate

needs: food, water, shelter, and medical care. After a time, organized response tapers off, as each

disaster in turn fades out of public memory.

In the developing world, response to obvious disasters is more chaotic—an amalgamation

of international rescuers battle language, culture, and resource barriers to work together to

provide care and relief. More often than not, a western entity funded by western governments or

western donations takes charge, and a familiar story unfolds. Always, the same news media

replay similar graphic images, generating the same sympathetic response and corresponding

donations. Always, response is focused on immediate needs. And always, the disaster eventually

disappears from the headlines, funds dry up, and relief workers return home.

Response methodologies for these disasters are clear and readily agreed upon, but they
See Galtung 1969, Wisner et al. 2004, Solnit 2009, Farmer 2005.
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are not holistic and leave much to be desired. Political expediency and financial limitations

dictate that band-aid-type solutions that target obvious needs for a limited time are frequently all

that can be managed; they do little more than triage problems and address only what is most

immediate and vital. These methodologies work to get an affected population back on its limping

feet, but do little more; they make no attempts to change the pre-disaster status quo.

Those who respond to the quiet disasters of everyday life must utilize a different

approach. Because societal failures such as gross economic inequality, our inability to combat

climate change, and rampant homelessness are not labeled “emergencies” by society, the media,

or political leaders, these individuals must constantly fight for the funds and the attention needed

to wage their battles. Nonprofits, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs),

cooperatives, religious groups, social movements, and governments (to an extent) are some of

the primary agents of these responses. Their methods are many: nonviolent resistance, free lunch

programs, investigative journalism, intentional communities, academic research and publication,

and direct action are just a few examples.

Response strategies used to mitigate these disasters are not only more varied but almost

universally not as effective or far-reaching as their practitioners would like: the flaws buried in

the foundation of our society, much like cracks in the foundation of an old building, are

extremely difficult to repair. Not only are they interwoven, they run deep enough that the

building might need to be dismantled before they can be truly fixed. In quiet disasters, too,

political and economic realities force short-term, relief-type solutions that only attend to the

symptoms are frequently all that can be managed; addressing the root cause is simply out of the


Fighting to mitigate the impacts of both forms of disaster are meritorious and crucial acts.
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After all, where would we be without fire fighters or the World Food Program? But mitigation is

not enough. A new response methodology for responding to conspicuous disasters could

simultaneously address everyday problems much closer to their roots.

Problematic Truths

Three problematic truths that serve as the basis for this research:

1. Society, at all levels, is plagued by various structural limiters which restrict agency, access to

resources, and social capital in certain communities. In other words, inequalities of power

(lack of agency), unequal access to basic resources like food and medical care, and hindered

abilities to generate strong social networks (lack of social capital), are maintained by the

social, economic, and political systems in which we live. These mechanisms can be

considered structural because they have no obvious actor; they are built into society.

Structural limiters restrict the capacities of individuals in communities, as well as the

communities themselves. While this concept has many names, the framework adopted here is

that of structural violence as defined by Norwegian sociologist and peace researcher Johan

Galtung (1969).

2. Catastrophic conspicuous disasters, due in part to human development and human-caused

climate change, are becoming more frequent and causing more damage than ever before.

3. Structural violence increases the vulnerability of certain populations to disasters, which in

turn perpetuates suffering and structural violence.

The issues at play here—catastrophic disasters, unequal structural limitations, and

vulnerability—are intimately connected to one another. So too are the related concepts of social

cohesion and climate change. Many scholars, however, fail to draw connections between these

topics, and all speak in the vastly different languages of their own fields. In order to draw these
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disparate threads together, concepts from these fields must be introduced, links between them

must be established, and a set of terms must be agreed upon.

Those who seek to remedy structural violence face three major stumbling blocks. First, it

has become insidious: buried so deep, it is nearly invisible, so much so that for many it can

appear to be the sole paradigm in which society can operate. Second, it is extremely pervasive:

structural violence can be understood as a complex web of distinct but fundamentally interrelated

problems, making it nearly impossible to fix.2 Third, intricately connected to economic

structures, the inertia of structural violence is hard to overcome. Galtung postulates that “a type

of violence built into the social structure should exhibit a certain stability” (1969: 173): as long

as the structure remains, so too will the violence.

When this deep-rooted weed of inequality perennially flowers, however, the flaws of this

structure become much more tractable. Conspicuous disasters produce retorts to all three hurdles

of structural violence (See Figure 1.1). First, disasters torture us with extreme images of how we

live which we ordinarily choose not to see: inequalities more stratified than usual, poverty more

blatant, suffering more obvious. In short, as the ground shakes or flood waters rise or a tornado

touches down, structural violence is brought into very visible relief. Second, the damage done by

many disasters can be as pervasive as the inequalities that already exist within the affected

community: thorough damage requires thorough repair that can, if so directed, address many of

the systems in the structural violence web. Third, as the social fabric tears, the construct of

normal life disappears, mandating immediate change and opening the door for more permanent

shifts. Galtung continues his hypothesis, stating that while social structures “may not very often

An easy example: how can the United States repair its urban public education system without fundamentally
addressing not only teacher salaries, school infrastructure, and classroom best practices, but neighborhood crime,
unhealthy diets, bad parenting, and the causes behind a historically unprecedented rise in Attention Deficit
Disorder and other learning disabilities?
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be changed…quickly,” they “may perhaps sometimes be changed overnight” (1969: 173). Solnit

tells us that disaster events do force that overnight shift: “disaster throws us into the temporary

utopia of a transformed human nature and society, one that is bolder, freer, less attached and

divided than in ordinary times, not blank, but not tied down” (2009: 20).

An earthquake may collapse a building's roof, but it also exposes the weeds that have

attacked its foundation for years. To focus on the weeds without addressing the roof, and perhaps

the survivors trapped under it, would clearly be wrong. But to see and attend only to the roof is a

tragedy of missed opportunity. Indeed, every incidence of disaster is a chance to look deeply and

critically at the structures we have built for ourselves, to question the way things are and to alter

that status quo powerfully and quickly. This study will investigate structural violence and the

opportunities disasters present to explore the possibility of a disaster management paradigm that

uncovers, explores, and challenges structural violence in partnership with affected communities.

Figure 1.1: Structural violence in disasters

Normally, structural violence is hard During and after disaster events, however:
to fix because it is:
Insidious, invisible → Structural violence is revealed, visible

Pervasive (interrelated systems) → Pervasive damage mandates multi-system repair

An inert social structure → “The old order no longer exists” (Solnit 2009: 16)

= Structural violence far more tractable during and

after disaster events than in everyday life.

In Chapter Two, structural limiters, both nationally (within the United States) and

globally, will be examined through the lens of structural violence. Chapter Three will enumerate

definitions and classifications for natural hazards and disaster events, review research
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documenting the human contribution to their increasing frequency and severity, and consider the

concept of human vulnerability and how structural violence creates vulnerable populations. In

Chapter Four, we return to disasters to reveal and explore the opportunities they present in their

earliest stages. In Chapter Five, suggestions are made for how to best utilize the longer term

opportunities of disaster response. I coin the terms “just relief” and “just reconstruction” to refer

respectively to short-term and long-term disaster response that is community-driven, efficient,

and actively challenges structural violence and injustice. Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight apply

these concepts to two cities recently affected by catastrophic disasters, detailing opportunities

embraced and missed, lessons learned, and the beauty of human resilience.

Two Stories

This study would not be complete without an application of the concepts to historical

situations. Two disaster events have been studied in order to analyze the possibilities and

potential hurdles of the suggestions at hand. Both case studies involve recent natural hazards

affecting American cities. The decision to remain contained within the United States was

conscious and two-fold. First, the shared political system increases grounds for comparison

between the two case studies. Second, the author believes that the United States satisfies the

ideal conditions for this study: rife with structural violence, the need for structural change is

clear, yet the nation is wealthy enough that, with a change in priorities, the economy could

sustain a substantially more holistic vision of preparedness and disaster management.

New Orleans, Louisiana, on the Gulf of Mexico, was the largest of many communities

devastated by hurricane Katrina in August 2005. This mid-size city located at the mouth of the

Mississippi river has been a crucial American trading outpost for well over a century. Known

both as the soul of America and the Big Easy, among other nicknames, New Orleans is an
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African American cultural center, the home of Jazz music, and the progenitor of a culture of

tolerance and nonchalance. Many neighborhoods sit well below sea level. As Katrina hit the city,

the storm surge it pushed overtopped an inadequate levee system, outmatched antiquated pumps,

and caused six major floodwall breaches. After sustaining the wind and water damage from the

hurricane itself, parts of the city flooded and remained under water for weeks. New Orleans,

once a bustling home of 485,000, after a mandatory evacuation and the death of some 1,400

people, was left with only 75,000 residents (Wallace, Roberts, and Todd 2005: Figure 11). Local,

state, and federal government agencies were caught off guard and were ill-prepared to deal with

what followed.

Failures of relief such as the desertion of prisoners in flood risk areas, negligently slow

hospital evacuation, and the abandonment of at-risk citizens on freeway overpasses with no

shade or water were followed by failures of reconstruction. Five years after the storm, the city

remains roiled in ongoing accusations of corruption; it continues to face major challenges in

infrastructure repair, and has yet to completely restore flood protection measures to pre-storm

status, let alone fix its systemic deficiencies. As neighborhood groups and homeowners all push

in different directions, New Orleans is at long last in the final stages of enacting a comprehensive

master plan. This story will be told in Chapter Seven.

Greensburg, Kansas is a rural community 100 miles west of Wichita. At its peak,

Greensburg's 3,000 residents' primary occupations were agriculture, maintaining natural gas

compression stations, and small industry. In recent decades the town went the way of many rural

American communities—no longer a home of much opportunity, Greensburg began to lose jobs

and population; in 2007, the town had 1,500 residents and, according to superintendent Darin

Headrick, Greensburg’s “biggest export was [its] youth” (Headrick 2010). On May 4th of that
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year a one-and-a-half mile wide tornado destroyed ninety-five percent of Greensburg's

residences and all but one municipal building. In an unusual success story, the devastated town

has enacted a comprehensive master plan and redefined itself as a place of environmental

stewardship and the country's largest experiment in sustainable building practices. While the

current population is only 900, residents and outsiders continue to make significant investments

in business and infrastructure, and the county is currently in the process of recruiting the first

factories it has seen in decades (Wetmore 2010). As research for this analysis nears completion,

Greensburg's citizens will celebrate the third anniversary of the disaster that gave them the

opportunity to rebuild. This story will be told in Chapter Eight.

While many comparisons between these two case studies can be drawn, each such

attempt must be taken with a grain of salt. These two disasters varied significantly in nature (for

example, would-be tornado victims protect themselves in storm shelters in their communities, so

when the damage is done and people emerge from their shelters, the community itself remains

mostly whole, in close physical contact) and scope (Hurricane Katrina severely affected

hundreds of miles of coastline and required emergency response contributions from numerous

states). Additionally, the two cities in question vary tremendously in essentially every measurable

demographic specific, including population size, race, and primary economic engines. Despite

their differences, much can be learned from telling these two stories side-by-side. This work does

not insinuate that Greensburg has succeeded where New Orleans has failed: the failures and

successes, as well as the challenges these communities still face, will all be addressed in turn.

Through this analysis, lessons can hopefully be learned that apply to preparing for and

responding to all future disasters.

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Chapter 2: The Disaster of Everyday Life

“The world … should not be the way it is. It does not take a theological degree or a lot of sophistication or years of
graduate study to learn that. It takes only some years of living. If it is not self-evident, it can never be demonstrated.
Juan Luis Segundo, a Jesuit from Uruguay, warns us that unless we agree that the world should not be the way it
is...there is no point of contact, because the world that is satisfying to us is the same world that is utterly devastating
to them.”

Robert Brown 1993: 44

“Why do people die of AIDS?” and “why did he die of AIDS?” are two very different

questions. When considering almost any individual case, direct mechanisms can typically be

found: maybe he had many sexual partners, believed condoms were not worth the investment, or

shared dirty needles with other drug users. Or, perhaps, if no obvious causes are visible, he was

just unlucky. But if the broader question is asked, we come upon very different answers. Per

population, nine times more Sub-Saharan Africans are living with HIV than North Americans

(UNAIDS 2009). Within the United States, eighteen out of every 10,000 whites suffer from the

disease, a fraction of the 115 victims of the disease per 10,000 blacks; in fact, a greater number

of African Americans than whites have been diagnosed, even though United States citizens are

six times as likely to be white. 3 Do blacks, as a race, make poor decisions more often than other

ethnicities? Or is there something else going on?

The world is not how it should be; that is a central premise of this work. Pick the past or

the present and look around: the ground on which we stand is rife with suffering that is unequally

distributed. Because of unique structural processes that increase their vulnerability to the disease,

African-Americans, as well as Sub-Saharan Africans, are more likely to contract HIV.

Abstinence-only education, lack of access to inexpensive sexual protection measures, and

infrequency of regular medical checkups that could lead to early diagnosis are a few examples.

3 and US Census
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Similar stories could be told about education, employment, nutrition, and access to shelter. Fault

for the homelessness of one woman can all-too-easily be assigned to her poor work ethic or drug

addiction; blame for a twelve-year-old's morbid obesity can be ascribed to poor parenting. Yet

this allotment of responsibility fails to examine the complex hidden structural processes that

affect entire communities; it is at best incomplete and at worst completely false.

Both individual choice and the social environment in which those choices are made affect

potential outcomes. The relationship between the system in which an actor operates and that

actor's decisions, however, is less obvious than the direct relationship between those choices and

their consequences. Yes, had the obese child's parents paid closer attention to his diet and

exchanged his video games for more time outside, childhood obesity could probably have been

avoided. But both the child and parents are acting within structures that may make those choices

difficult or impossible: when physical education programs have been cut from school budgets

and playgrounds paved over, or when neighborhoods are too unsafe to spend much time outside,

getting exercise is difficult; when the only access to food within walking distance for a car-less

family is fast food, diets tend to be unhealthy. Moreover, due to limited employment

opportunities, the parents (or single parent) may not be able to spend much time at home

monitoring their child's actions. So, while different decisions might have prevented childhood

obesity, the set of possible choices is severely limited by the surroundings. 4

Long-time medical doctor and anthropologist Paul Farmer, writing about medicine in

Haiti, tells us that “the problem, in this view, is with the world, even though it may be manifest

in the patient” (2005: 153). In this light, suffering can be understood as having multiple levels,

each harder to discern than the previous. Individual suffering lies at the surface, visible and all

This argument is supported by at least sixteen nutritional research studies which find that growing up in poorer
neighborhoods increases the likelihood of childhood obesity (Black and Macinko 2008).
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around us but personal: every individual’s suffering is different. Digging below the surface

reveals more than enough linkages and correlations between individuals suffering similar fates

that it is clear that responsibility for those fates do not lie completely with the individual.

Underneath that, it will be shown that each set of correlations can be understood as different

nodes in a matrix of categorical injustice in which certain communities are denied access to the

tools and resources which make success possible, then blamed for their failures to succeed (see

Figure 2.1). 5 That underlying matrix can be understood as structural violence.

Figure 2.1: Three Tiers of Suffering

Understanding the “Realization Gap”: Structural Violence

Johan Galtung, Norwegian sociologist and one of the founders of the discipline of Peace

Studies, parsed the concept of violence in 1969 in an attempt to define peace. If peace is to be

described as the absence of violence, how can the definition of violence be broadened to make

this description true? 6 Violence the way it is traditionally defined—as somatic incapacitation and

This three-tiered analysis of suffering is similar to the three-tiered “progression to vulnerability” described by
Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, and Davis (2004, 51). In their Pressure and Release (PAR) model, they characterize
vulnerability as a product of unsafe conditions (level 1) created by dynamic pressures (level 2) which are the
result of root causes (level 3).
Defining peace by its opposite (negative peace) is not ideal; Galtung reminds us that “it is a clear case of
obscurum per obscurius” (1969, 167). However, Galtung argues that definitions any more specific tend to be
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deprivation—is not nearly encompassing enough: a lack of physical violence only would not

imply peace, as repressive regimes that deny political and social freedoms or strictly enforced

caste systems that restrict economic agency should not be considered peaceful. Galtung suggests

that violence can be described more broadly as “the cause of the difference between the potential

and the actual, between what could have been and what is” (1969: 168). Anything, then, that

holds an individual or a group of individuals back from achieving what is possible, which he

describes as “potential realizations,” can be considered violent (1969: 168). Galtung makes no

attempt to define “realizations” or create a comprehensive sum or realization index; similarly, no

effort will be made here. It suffices to say that almost any indicator could be utilized, from the

specific (life expectancy, infant mortality, education received) to the broad (as in happiness

indexes 7 or the United Nation's Human Development Index).

This definition of violence is abstract and broad, yet fitting. Examples illustrate its

accuracy. Consider the potential realization of academic learning: a child on a path towards

learning all that he can is vulnerable to many forms of violence. As a victim of bullying, he could

associate school with social and physical suffering and stop attending class. As a victim of

tracking, he could be held back from studying creative writing due to poor scores in math. At a

school without learning disability programs, his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

(ADHD) behavior could be interpreted as a lack of respect for the classroom, and he could

receive punishment instead of diagnosis and treatment. Walking home from school, he could be

shot or stabbed, accidentally be pricked by or purposefully use a dirty hypodermic needle, or

arrested and jailed for something he did or did not do. These are all forms of violence.

culturally-driven and therefore not holistic enough to apply globally.

See especially the rising popularity of “Gross National Happiness,” coined as a superior indicator of national
success than Gross National Product by the King of Bhutan in the 1970s. See 18 December 2004 Economist
article, “The Pursuit of Happiness.”
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Figure 2.2: Forming a Typology of Violence

Is violence Is it positive What affects does Does a subject Does an object Is violence
intentional? or negative? violence have? (actor) exist? (victim) exist? manifest?
Yes - Positive – Physical Yes – Personal, Yes – someone or Yes – manifest,
Intended reward-based Direct thing is hurt observable
No - Negative – Psychological No – Structural No – no obvious No – latent,
Accidental punishment (truncated) victim (truncated) quiet
Source: Modified from Galtung 1969, 173.

To further define this now-broad term, Galtung details a typology of violence based on

six identifiable characteristics; that typology is summarized in Figure 2.2. One of his distinctions,

between violence that is personal and violence that is structural, is especially salient to this study.

The kind of violence that is codified into the commonly accepted definition of the word, he

argues, has both a subject (perpetrator) and object (victim): e.g. bullying, stabbing, or shooting.

Other types of violence, however, are missing either a subject or an object; they are “truncated”

(1969: 170). This work focuses on situations of violence with an obvious victim or victims where

no apparent perpetrator can be found. In short, the sentence that describes this form of violence

omits a subject: “he killed her” becomes “___ killed her,” or “she has been killed.” Galtung

refers to this type of realization-limiter as structural violence:

We shall refer to the type of violence where there is an actor that commits the violence as
personal or direct, and to violence where there is no such actor as structural or indirect.
In both cases individuals may be killed or mutilated, hit or hurt in both senses of these
words, and manipulated by the means of stick or carrot strategies. But whereas in the first
case these consequences can be traced back to concrete persons as actors, in the second
case this is no longer meaningful. There may not be any person who directly harms
another person in the structure. The violence is built into the structure and shows up as
unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances. (1969: 170-171, emphasis in

He continues:

The important point here is that if people are starving when this is objectively avoidable,
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then violence is committed, regardless of whether there is a clear subject-action-object

relation, as during a siege yesterday or no such clear relation, as in the way world
economic relations are organized today. (ibid. 171)

What forms of violence, then, can be considered structural? Many inputs affect potential

realizations: innovations in medical technology provide us with cures for disease and the ability

to stay healthier longer; the weather (such as a bad snowstorm) may affect our mobility (we may

get snowed in). Yet our actual realizations tend to lie somewhat below what is possible. Galtung

provides, “if a person died from tuberculosis in the eighteenth century it would be hard to

conceive of this as violence since it might have been quite unavoidable, but if he dies from it

today, despite all the medical resources in the world, then violence is present” (1969: 168). When

life expectancy should be eighty years, but is reduced due to carcinogens, acid rain, or low air

quality, violence is present. In the case of the snowstorm, if wealthier neighborhoods are plowed

first while the poorest neighborhoods are saved for last, re-enabling the access of certain

communities but not others to employment (they can return to work) and grocery stores (they can

purchase food), violence is present. Figure 2.3 illustrates how structural violence can affect

difference between the potential and the actual.

Structural violence is a powerful tool: once the concept is grasped, it can easily be applied

on macro- and micro-scales by academics and non-academics alike. It can be considered

objectively, as Galtung has done, or subjectively: we can all examine our own daily interactions

with those around us, the place we occupy in society, and the violence we are victim to and

perpetuate in our everyday life. Many scholars and activist organizations have considered social

problems from this perspective, although most do not label their analysis as structural violence or

mention Galtung's name. The United States anti-racism movement is one example: without

talking about structural violence in name, advocates claim that it is more difficult for racial
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Figure 2.3: When does structural violence exist?

Source: Galtung 1969

minorities than whites to function in society; over 100 studies published in the last decade

document this (Drexler 2007). 8 Most importantly, the framework of structural violence gives us a

way of understanding the complexity and interrelatedness of the many problems and inequalities

faced by human societies today. Through this lens, we find injustices to be pervasive, insidious,

and inert, making them especially difficult to address.

See, especially
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The Everywhere Disaster

Inequality is everywhere – it is pervasive. In the decade preceding the turn of the 21st

century, over 270 million people were killed around the world by political violence, and 70

million perished due to avoidable famines and droughts (Wisner et al. 2004: 4). Today, over one

billion people, a sixth of the world's population, do not have enough to eat (UNFAO 2009). In

recent years, economic inequality is increasing: the poorest fifth of humanity, all of whom live

on less than $1 a day, control a smaller share of the world's wealth than they did in 2004

(UNDESA 2007). Within the United States, while poverty is not as extreme, inequality is just as

far-reaching. Thirty percent of Americans are low-income, and thirteen percent live in poverty. 9

Twenty percent of Americans do not finish high school, and the Hispanic population has an

especially low non-completion rate: only fifty-two percent graduate. 10 Seventeen million US

households, in which nearly a quarter of American children live, were food insecure at some

point during 2008. 11 Similarly noteworthy statistics could be given for disease, healthcare,

housing, and political agency, but as Jesuit Priest Jon Sobrino writes, “Statistics no longer

frighten us” (qtd. In Farmer 2005: 8). 12 Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen (one of

many authors who discuss structural violence without naming it as such) describes these

conditions as “unfreedoms”:

Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as

tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of

“Low Income” is considered to be 200% of the Federal Poverty line or lower; in 2008, a single individual under
the age of 65 would fall into this category with an income of less than $22,402. Individuals “living in poverty”
refers to those making less than the federal poverty line. A single individual under 65 fell into this category in
2008 with an income of less than $11,201 (Bread for the World 2009). It should be noted, however, that the
United States federal poverty line is considered quite conservative, and many above the poverty line still struggle
to get by every day. (Bread for the World 2009)
“Food insecurity is defined as a condition of uncertain availability of or inability to acquire safe, nutritious food
in socially acceptable ways. Broadly speaking, this corresponds to the condition of hunger or the risk of having
hunger” (Bread for the World 2009).
See UNDESA 2007 for many of these statistics and trends.
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public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. Despite

unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary
freedoms to vast numbers—perhaps even the majority—of people. Sometimes the lack of
substantive freedoms … robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger, or to achieve
sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illnesses, or the opportunity to be
adequately clothed or sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities. (1999: 3-4)

The point is, drastic inequalities—in suffering; access to resources; political, economic, and

social freedoms; and other arenas—do indeed exist everywhere.

Structural violence is especially pervasive because it contributes to a number of factors

that are themselves structurally violent: negative feedback loops make those who suffer from

structural violence more prone to it, reinforcing and increasing inequality. First, Farmer tells us

that structural violence affects agency, the ability to claim and exert power, by weakening

victims' stance in society and by occupying them with the day-to-day chore of survival. The

inability to claim agency, in turn, increases susceptibility to additional facets of structural

violence (Farmer 2005: 40). Second, structural violence affects what sociologist Robert Putnam

calls social capital: victims of intense suffering are less able to build and keep strong social

relationships which provide protective measures from other acts of personal and structural

violence (2000). Moreover, because structural violence acts along social “axes,” such as gender,

race, poverty, rural living, immigrant status, or sexual orientation, it tends to affect entire

communities (Farmer 2005: 42). When entire communities are left with little social capital, those

strong relationships that are able to exist may supply emotional support but may not provide

social network benefits found in more successful communities such as financial support,

assistance finding jobs, and creation of community-wide agency, exactly what these communities

need most (Putnam 2000: 289). 13 Again, just as structural violence tends to inhibit the generation

A powerful anecdote that reflects the difficulty of creating and maintaining social capital in poor communities
affected by structural violence can be found in Paul Farmer's story of Acephie (2004, 31-35).
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of social capital, low social capital is itself a form of violence, in turn lowering potential

realizations and preventing communities from gaining access to necessary resources such as

healthcare and quality education.

The Quiet Disaster

Structural violence is not only pervasive, but insidious. Because it is so difficult to see,

coming to terms with its existence and extent is not easy; as long as it can be questioned,

disagreement will hamper attempts to combat it. The major evidence of its subtlety has been

discussed on earlier pages: as we have seen, problems based in a debilitating lack of access to

resources that affect entire communities appear to be personal and individual, so that “social

processes and events come to be translated into personal stress and disease … [and] become

embodied as individual experience” (Farmer 2005: 30). As long as these issues are viewed as

individual, what solutions are presented will forever be band-aid solutions which treat the

symptoms, not the root causes, of inequality.

Why is structural violence so hidden? Although Farmer proclaims that “people living in

poverty are [the] experts on structural violence and human rights,” and that those looking to

combat suffering must “elicit [their] experiences and views” (144, 146), for two reasons the poor

are rarely heard from. First, the oppressed are “conditioned” to be silent: their occupation with

survival generally keeps them too busy to speak out, and when they do they are often condemned

to further violence (26). Second, when the oppressed do communicate their condition, they are

persistently not listened to: “the poor are not only more likely to suffer; they are also less likely

to have their suffering noticed. … A wall between the rich and the poor is being built, so that

poverty does not annoy the powerful” (50). 14 Those in power find that they benefit from such

Such walls come in many forms, including physical (such as gated communities, Israeli border fences, and the
US Military ‘Green Zone’ in Iraq [see Klein 2007]), social/cultural (news media reporting choices, culture-wide
Cohen-Price 26

oppression, so rarely speak out about it, while the victims have been not only bound but gagged

by extreme suffering. As silence continues, so does the status quo.

The Inert Disaster

The final reason that structural violence is so hard to remedy is its inertia. Inequalities

have become so intertwined with everyday life that they would be difficult to overturn without

changing, at least to some extent, the basic tenets on which society functions. All too often,

injustices are legitimized, called inevitable; constantly in the background, it is easy to assume

that they are the natural way of life. Must it be that the state of homelessness exists, that we

allow people to live with neither shelter nor security for their bodies and possessions? Should

healthcare for the sick and nourishing food for the destitute be resources that some can afford,

and others cannot? The compassionate must question the assumed naturalness of these

inequalities, but challenging the structure is not so easy when the strength of social relationships

is in decline across the board, distrust of those with whom we are not familiar is at record highs,

and willingness to experience and participate in society as citizens – with the responsibility to

witness injustice and the power to make change – is at its nadir. 15 Farmer argues that the system

we have built mandates inequality to the point of sanctioning human rights violations (2005:

219). Yet the structures we have created have become so deep and complex that they seem

impossible to significantly change. If human power created them, however, human ingenuity can

surely repair them; in the aftermath of disaster, this can truly be done.

definitions of ‘outsiders’), and personal/mental (individual emotional and logical choices to not see, witness, or
act against inequality).
For a complete analysis of trust and social participation in the United States, see Putnam 2000. Social Capital,
trust, and relationships, see Putnam 2000 pgs 25, 98, 108, and 141. For participation in society as a politically
aware 'citizen,' see Putnam 2000 pgs 97, 107, and 114 as well as Solnit 2009 pgs 9, 18, and 306.
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Chapter 3: Structural Violence in Catastrophic Disasters

“We are entering an era where sudden and slow disaster will become far more powerful and far more common. …
In late 2007 the humanitarian organization Oxfam reported, ‘Climatic disasters are increasing as temperatures climb
and rainfall intensifies … yet even extreme weather need not bring disasters; it is poverty and powerlessness that
make people vulnerable.’”

Rebecca Solnit 2009, 307

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, eight feet of water flooded the New Orleans

neighborhood of Holly Grove. At the time of the flooding, most residents had evacuated, some under

their own power, many flown or driven at the hands of FEMA and the city government to various

cities and towns around the country. Ms. Reynaud 16, an eighty year old woman who had lived in the

neighborhood for forty years, was flown to Houston. The house she owned was destroyed by

floodwaters, and she had no insurance to help her rebuild. Nor did she have significant savings or a

steady income to which she could return. Ms. Reynaud was lucky: the Trinity Christian Community,

a long-standing community organization in Holly Grove, helped her rebuild her house. Then a

member of the organization drove to Texas to pick her up and bring her home. But many others were

not so lucky: forty percent of the neighborhood has not returned to New Orleans, and probably never

will (Brown 2010). Five years after the water receded, Holly Grove is still marked with potholed,

quiet streets and dotted with the shells of gutted houses on which a definitive water line is still

visible. Ten minutes away, in the neighborhood of Lakeview, most residents have moved back. Even

though Lakeview suffered more flood damage than Holly Grove, many streets have been repaved,

insurance monies collected, and homes rebuilt. Why the difference? Was it negligence on the part of

Ms. Reynaud to not purchase flood insurance? Can the overwhelmingly poor residents of Holly

Grove be faulted for not preparing, returning, and rebuilding?

“Ms. Reynaud” is an alias; as this story was recounted by director of the Trinity Christian Community
organization Kevin Brown, not the resident herself, permission to use her real name was never obtained.
Cohen-Price 28

Before these questions can be answered, disasters themselves must be addressed. What is a

disaster? When do they occur? Why? Only then can we turn to the notion of vulnerability. What

makes certain populations vulnerable to disasters? Vulnerability can be understood as structural

violence applied to disasters; where structural violence as discussed in the previous chapter refers to

everyday life, we find here that the same inequalities of access and resources define who is most at

risk when disasters occur.

What Makes a “Disaster”?

Catastrophic disasters are increasing. Since the turn of this century alone, our news cycles

have been overrun with images from the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City;

the 2004 tsunami which wiped out much of Thailand and Indonesia; hurricanes Katrina, Rita,

Gustav, and Ike, which have affected the United States and Central America to varying degrees;

earthquakes in Iran, China, India, and Pakistan; and most recently the 2009 tsunami in American

Samoa and 2010 earthquakes that shook Haiti and Chile. Many others, large and small, generally

go unnoticed except by certain scholars and those emotionally or physically tied to the affected

region or people. Be they natural, such as earthquakes; human-caused, such as famine or war; or

dubious combinations of both, such as flooding below hydro-electric dams or behind levees, it

seems that there are more property-, livelihood-, and life-destroying disasters today than ever

before (Solnit 2009: 22, 307; Ripley 2008: xiv, 43; Wisner et al. 2004: 62-64). Why? To answer

this question, we must define “disaster.”

The scope of existing disaster studies vary significantly. Some (Solnit 2009, Ripley 2008)

look specifically at rapid-onset events of various magnitudes; studying the actions of individuals

and groups in crisis, their “disasters” are qualified not by cause, quantity affected, or damage

done, but by the entrance of an affected population into a crisis mode with its own norms and
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rules. Much can be learned from these studies. Studies of development and reconstruction

(O'Dempsey 2009, Klein 2007) address events of significant devastation, those that cause

enough damage to require significant investment to repair economic systems and vital

infrastructure. To those in the traditional emergency response field, a “multiple casualty incident”

is any event that places excessive demands on emergency medical services, requires emergency

crews to alter their response plans to adequately provide emergency care, or is simply too large

to provide adequate care (Mistovich & Karren 2008). Belgium's Centre for Research on the

Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) maintains its own set of criteria for its disaster database,

which contains over 14,500 disasters from 1900 to present. 17 The database contains natural and

technological disasters that span a huge range in scope, from train wrecks to international

famines (Guha-Sapir et al. 2004: 16, 21).

The terminology most closely followed here comes from a group of British scholars who

have jointly authored two editions of the esteemed text about disasters and vulnerability, At Risk.

Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, and Davis differentiate between disasters and what they name hazard

events. A hazard event, natural in origin, does damage to a distinct place (or places) at a specific

time: earthquakes, storms, mudslides, tornadoes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, and hurricanes are

all hazard events. Where hazards refer to physical places, disasters refer to people: disasters

(more specifically, disaster events) occur when a “significant number of vulnerable people

experience a hazard and suffer severe damage and/or disruption of their livelihood system in

such a way that recovery is unlikely without external aid” (Wisner et al. 2004: 49-50).

CRED’s EM-DAT database utilizes possibly one of the most specific, yet broad set of criteria. To be listed in the
EM-DAT, an event must fulfill at least one of the following:
- 10 or more people killed,
- 100 or more people affected,
- a state of emergency declared by affected party, or
- a call for international assistance by affected party
See footnote 18. (Guha-Sapir et al. 2004: 16)
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This dichotomy is an important one. By splitting the commonly accepted but ill-defined

term “natural disaster” into its component parts, the very distinct causes and effects of each half

can be isolated. The authors look only at large natural hazards which, but for a few mentions of

climate change, they set aside as such: natural. The disasters themselves, however, have human

causes: they occur because we allow ourselves, or at least certain segments of our population, to

live vulnerably, unprotected and unprepared for natural hazards. In this light, earthquakes do not

kill people, or even disrupt their lives; they simply shake the ground. Unreinforced masonry

buildings, forgotten seismic retrofitting, and proximity to fault lines do indeed kill. Moreover,

housing discrimination and other forms of inequality dictate which communities receive the

brunt of the damage. These are the true causes of disaster. In the words of Rebecca Solnit, “no

disaster is truly natural” (2009: 35).

In this work, Wisner et al.'s definitions of “hazard events” and “disasters” are accepted

with three modifications (see Figure 3.1). First, Wisner et al. focus solely on natural hazard

events, leaving technological hazards—those events immediately traceable to human causes—to

other authors. Although many of the disasters cited throughout this work are caused by natural

hazards, the concepts considered here apply as well to their technological counterparts such as

oil spills, bombings, or nuclear accidents. After all, these hazards also affect people in terms of

their vulnerabilities and provide opportunity for structural rebirth. Moreover, this modification

guarantees the inclusion of hazards that may be part-natural, part-technological, such as Italy’s

Vaiont Dam flood: In 1963, landslides into the catchment area of the dam caused waters to

overtop the dam. The landslides, natural hazard events, could never have caused flooding to the

same scope had the dam not existed. The resulting flood, then, was a hazard of a dually natural

(hazardous landslide) and technological (hazardous dam construction) nature. Over 3,000 people
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died in the disaster that followed (Nelson 2009).

Second, even natural hazard events can no longer simply be assumed to be natural.

Debarati Guha-Sapir, David Hargitt, and Philippe Hoyois of the Centre for Research on the

Epidemiology of Disasters tell us, “Global climate change will increase the number of extreme

events, creating more frequent and intensified natural hazard [events.] A growing body of

evidence point[s] to the effect of human behaviour on the global natural environment” (2004: 13-

14). This applies not only to hazards most commonly associated with global warming: some

scientists are currently considering linkages between earthquakes and human activity such as

pumping from underground oil reservoirs and aquifers and deep waste disposal (ibid.: 23).

Climate change is not only beginning to produce more supposedly natural hazards; it may

indirectly lead to a rise of technological and natural-technological hazards as well: as climate

patterns shift famine, water shortage, and resource wars become ever more likely.

Third, disasters must not only directly affect people. They must have a serious impact on

infrastructure such as damaging transit or plumbing systems, creating new long-term limits of

Figure 3.1: Defining Disasters: Variations on Wisner et al.

Hazard Events Disasters (Disaster Events)
Wisner, et al. “'Hazard' refers to the natural events “A disaster occurs when a significant
that may affect different number of vulnerable people experience
different times.... The hazard has a hazard and suffer severe damage
varying degrees of intensity and and/or disruption of their livelihood
severity.”* system in such a way that recovery is
unlikely without external aid”*
Modifications + Technological (i.e. of human + Damage to infrastructure that requires
origin) and joint natural- serious investments to repair
technological hazards
+ Understanding that even
“natural” hazard events may have
root human causes, such as human-
induced climate change
*Wisner et al. 2004: 49-50
Cohen-Price 32

access to clean drinking water, or rendering a school system inoperable. Indeed, the systems

most easily repaired after disasters are those that sustain the greatest damage, as funds are set

aside for replacing broken infrastructure, not tearing down what still functions.

Disasters: More Opportunity than Ever Before

Let us turn, with an understanding of the terms, to numbers. Wisner et al. state, “there is a

general consensus in research on disasters that the number of natural hazard events (earthquakes,

eruptions, floods, or cyclones) has not increased in recent decades” (2004: 62). CRED comes to

the same conclusion: the likelihood that an increasing trend in natural hazard occurrence exists is

small (Guha-Sapir et al. 2004: 53). Yes, climate change may have recently started to increase the

number of natural hazard events, and likely will in the near future: Guha-Sapir et al. and Wisner

et al. both review bodies of research pointing to such an increase, and climate scientists often

note increased extreme climate-based hazards as a major risk of climate change (Guha-Sapir et

al. 2004: 13, 23, 53; Wisner et al. 2004: 62, 86 [note 15]; Speth 2004: 59; Munich Re 2006: 7).

This trend, however, is not yet clear.

If natural hazard events have remained relatively constant throughout recent history,

catastrophic disasters have increased substantially. 18 The increase in number and severity of

disasters over the course of the twentieth century is so significant it cannot be explained by

inconsistencies, an increase in reporting, or improved reporting methods: Guha-Sapir et al. note

Statistics vary by author, as definitions as well as classifications (“what constitutes a 'large' disaster?”) vary.
Guha-Sapir list classification systems of a number of organizations with stakes in disaster response and recovery,
including insurance companies and the IMF (2004: 22). They put forth their own typology:
Number of deaths Affected population Economic Damage
Small ≤5 ≤ 1,500 ≤ US$8 million
Medium 5 < x < 50 1,500 < x < 150,000 US$8 mil < x < US$200 mil
Large ≥ 50 ≥ 150,000 ≥ US$200 million
More, Guha-Sapir et al. warn us that disaster statistics are patchy at best and easily misleading due to the nature
of information collection: no organization has attempted to assume the impossible role of standardized data
collection for all disasters, and those agencies—governments, nonprofit relief agencies, insurance companies,
and international governing bodies—which do publish such information are varied in their collection and
reporting methods (15). Additionally, the apparent increase of disasters, especially small ones, may be padded by
the development of more standard and more frequent reporting (20-21).
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that disasters caused an average of US$67 billion per year in damage between 1994 and 2003,

fourteen times more than half a century earlier (2004: 13). They find that more than 255 million

people worldwide were affected by over 350 disaster events in 2003, up 180% from the 90

million affected a century ago (2004: 13, 53). 19. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine,

cites a more extreme 430% increase in natural disasters since 1975 (2007: 539). Wisner et al.,

citing publications by German insurer Munich Re, also finds an increasing trend in disaster

frequency and damage (Wisner et al. 2004: 62-64; Munich Re 1999: 40-41). Solnit, as well as

journalist Amanda Ripley, also cite similar trends (Ripley 2008: xiv; Solnit 2009: 22).

Technological hazard events have become more likely over the last century as human

innovation has produced ever more powerful tools. Author Ulrich Beck argues that the developed

world is becoming a “risk society” distinguished by unprepared-for technological risks at every

crossroads (qtd in Wisner et al. 2004: 16). In possibly the oldest well-documented large disaster

to be caused by a technological hazard event, a ship carrying large quantities of fuel oil on its

deck and 3,000 tons of explosives in the holds below collided with another ship and exploded in

the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917. The blast, and the tidal wave, fires, and acid rain that

followed destroyed 1,600 buildings and damaged 12,000, and killed 1,500 residents and injured

9,000 (Solnit 2009: 73-75). 20 Other major technological hazards-turned-disasters include the

explosions of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine and the Bhopal, India chemical

plant, as well as oil spills and the dumping of nuclear and other hazardous wastes (Wisner et al.

2004: 38-39). The dropping of atomic bombs over Japan during World War II, as well as

The authors note that the 60% increase in reported disaster events alone is not significant enough to determine
the existence of a trend, due to increased reporting and better tracking of disasters. However, “a 180% increase in
victims is a definite trend and one that is likely to continue into the future.” (Guha-Sapir et al. 2004: 53).
The explosion at Halifax was documented by psychologist and priest Samuel Prince. After the explosion, his
church housed the newly homeless and served thousands of meals to survivors. Prince later went on to receive a
doctorate in the then new field of sociology; his 1920 dissertation, Catastrophe and Social Change, was the first
published study of human behavior in disasters (Solnit 2009, 79, Ripley 2008, vi-xi and 138).
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countless other military actions which have upset the lives and livelihoods of civilian

populations, could be considered technological disasters as well. We tend to be scared of the

wrong things (Ripley 2008: 31, 33, 50), but we treat even those technological hazards we do

recognize with a “high degree of ambivalence,” failing to prepare or prevent them (Wisner et al.

2004: 17). We have the technology and wherewithal to lower the likelihood (and likely severity)

of technological hazards; after all, we created them in the first place. However, at present it

appears that the mitigation of damage caused by technological and natural hazards seems to be

on no one's to-do list.

The Missing Piece: Vulnerability

Disaster events have increased and become more severe while hazard events remain

relatively constant because of where and how humans live. That “where” and “how” can be

expressed in terms of vulnerability, which Wisner et al. define as “the characteristics of a person

or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and

recover from the impact of a natural hazard” (2004: 11). There are two primary ways in which an

exponential increase in human population is partly responsible for increased vulnerability.

Simply, higher population density by definition puts more people at risk: more people residing

near a coastline, on a fault line, or in a tornado zone means more potential victims when a hazard

event occurs. 21 More complexly, the population increase has pushed people beyond safer areas to

settle in more dangerous locations: those lucky enough to live on the actual or figurative “high

ground” remain less vulnerable to potential hazards, while newcomers or those less lucky inherit

higher risk (See Figure 3.2) (Wisner et al. 2004: 62-69; Guha Sapir 2004: 27; Ripley 2008: xiv).

Guha-Sapir et al. report that “1 in 25 people worldwide was affected by natural disasters” in 2003. It is important
to note that that statistic (from [255 million affected] / [6.4 billion population]) is only a small increase from
1900, when approximately 1 in 18 people was affected ([90 million affected] / [1.7 billion population]).
Nonetheless, nearly three times as many people were affected in 2003 than a century earlier. (Guha-Sapir 13, 53;
population statistics from Munich Re 1999: 71)
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Figure 3.2: Vulnerability increases with growth

Model A Model B

As cities expand, they may grow closer to hazards original settlers had attempted to avoid. In
Model A, an unstable cliff remains some distance from a city center. But has that city expands,
some residents may be compelled to live nearer to the hazard, as in Model B.

A related issue, urbanization, has also increased vulnerability to natural hazard events. At

the turn of the century, half the world's population lived in cities, and that number is expected to

increase. Unplanned urban growth that creates housing or employment near potential hazard sites

is significantly responsible for disaster severity (Wisner et al. 2004: 70-71; Guha Sapir 2004;

Ripley 2008: xiv). The continued destruction of natural barriers, in great part due to the actions

of urban populations, has also fundamentally increased human vulnerability to hazards:

wetlands, swamps, and mangroves all protect coastal areas from coastal storms, while coral reefs

buffer against tsunamis. Unfortunately, we persist in filling wetlands for development and

destroying mangrove and reef ecosystems with pollution and overfishing (Wisner et al. 2004: 81,

Chapter 7; Tibbets 2006).

Vulnerability as Structural Violence

An understanding of the average increase in vulnerability, however, does not tell the

whole story. It is clear that vulnerability, like structural violence, functions along Farmer's axes

of oppression: gender, race, class, and immigrant status, to name a few (2005: 42-45). South

African writer Hein Marais opines, “Shelve the abiding fiction that disasters do not

discriminate—that they flatten everything in their path with 'democratic' disregard. Plagues zero

in on the dispossessed, on those forced to build their lives in the path of danger” (qtd. in Klein
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2007: 513). Indeed, Wisner et al. state that:

Most people are vulnerable because they have inadequate livelihoods, which are not
resilient in the face of shocks, and they are often poor. They are poor because they suffer
specific relations of exploitation, unequal bargaining and discrimination within the
political economy, and there may also be historical reasons why their homes and sources
of livelihood are located in resource-poor areas. (2004: 56)

Returning, then, to Figure 3.2, it is the poorest and weakest who tend to be relegated to the most

hazardous areas of any community. In other words, although Wisner et al. never use the term

“structural violence,” vulnerability to natural hazards can be understood as structural violence

functioning in an atypical environment defined by the existence or imminent existence of a

hazard. It is those two ingredients—a natural or technological hazard affecting a vulnerable

population—which create disaster events.

Recall from Galtung's typology that violence can be either latent or manifest (see Figure

2.2). Vulnerability is a latent form of structural violence that only manifests itself in hazard

situations. However, specific categories of suffering that contribute to latent vulnerability may be

manifest in everyday life as well. For example, let us consider two categories of suffering that

contributed to vulnerability when an earthquake struck Guatemala City in 1976:

• Housing: One journalist reported after the quake that “in this well-known fault zone the

houses of the rich have been built to costly anti-earthquake specifications. Most of the

poorest housing, on the other hand, is in the ravines or gorges which are highly

susceptible to landslides” (qtd. in Wisner et al. 2004: 280). While many aspects of

housing inequality are consistently manifest, low prevalence of earthquake retrofitting,

poor quality and shallow building foundations, and risky housing locations (i.e., at the

bottom of a ravine or under a cliff; see Figure 3.2) do not much affect everyday life.

Those who live in such conditions, however, are more vulnerable to earthquakes: these
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inequalities become manifest when earthquakes strike. Thus these conditions can be

considered latent forms of structural violence.

• Political Visibility: The earthquake killed 22,000 people, mostly indigenous Mayans

living in the rural highlands outside the Guatemala City and urban squatters living in

housing situations like those described above; within the city alone, 90,000 were made

homeless. Both of these communities—rural indigenous groups and poor squatters—were

especially vulnerable because they were politically invisible; with little representation or

political power to speak of, it was “exceedingly difficult … to obtain post-disaster

assistance from the government” (Wisner et al. 2004: 279). However, these populations

had been victims of this political invisibility long before the earthquake, consistently

denied access to government services in the past. Therefore, political invisibility was a

manifest form of structural violence in everyday life before the hazard event, and simply

found new forms of manifestation (in terms of vulnerability) during and after the quake.

The two pillars of structural violence, categories of suffering (such as housing and political

visibility) and the axes upon which suffering operates (such as race and class), interact in a

complex manner with hazard events to produce disasters. The result of this interaction is yet

another perpetuation of the difference between Galtung's potential and actual realizations:

individuals and communities are kept from achieving full potential in preparation for hazards

events as well as during and after them; the resulting disaster reinforces and extends that

realization gap, creating a downward cycle. A deep analysis of that relationship can be found in

Wisner et al.'s “Pressure and Release” and “Access” models (2004). For this work, however, the

process described in Figure 3.3 will suffice.

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Figure 3.3: A Genealogy of Disasters: Hazards, Violence, and Vulnerability

Disasters present opportunities for change; these opportunities will be explored in the

remaining chapters. But in order to utilize them, the chronic, dull suffering of everyday life as

well as the acute, conspicuous suffering of disasters must be understood. This suffering is not

equal: while hazard events may be great equalizers, disasters do not level the playing field; on

the contrary, they give the underdogs an even steeper hill to climb. The frequency of disasters is

higher today than ever before, which means this opportunity is not going away. The frequency of

weather-related disasters has increased four-fold over the last two decades (Solnit 2009: 22), but

it is not just the storms we need to fight: after all, “policy, unlike the weather, is subject to human

control” (Farmer 2005: 16). It is in part due to the visibility and intensity of inequalities in

disasters that momentum for change can be generated. Attempting to correct manifestations of

vulnerability may provide a remedy for some amount of disaster-borne suffering, but the real

solution lies in combating structural violence itself, at once targeting its day-to-day

manifestations and its latent contributions to vulnerability, making disasters more infrequent and

less severe while lessening the inequalities of access that plague disenfranchised communities

every day.
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Chapter 4: Just Relief—Suggestions for Immediate-Term

Disaster Response
“After two days of horror, when we had slept on the street and hobnobbed with aristocracy and riff-raff, when we
had nothing to eat but bread of the soldiers and the cheese of some kind neighbor, a little Miss Dainty and I, with our
hats sadly askew, with cinders and coal dust begriming our hair and eyes and face, traveled at dusk through the
burning ruins and melancholy devastation…. On the way a quietly dressed man approached us. 'May I walk with
you?' he begged. 'It's lonesome walking alone.' We smiled and nodded and took him in as if we had known him all
our lives.… And that is the sweetness and the gladness of the earthquake and the fire. Not of bravery, nor of
strength, nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness[: taking] joy in the other fellow.”

Pauline Jacobson
San Francisco, California
After the 1906 earthquake 22

American disaster sociologist and World War II veteran Charles Fritz recalled in 1961 his

surprise when he arrived for active duty in England in 1943. He expected to find the British

citizenry, already having lived through five years of war, resentful and unhappy. However, “those

expectations proved totally false. Instead, what one found was a nation of gloriously happy

people, enjoying life to the fullest, exhibiting a sense of gaiety and love of life that was truly

remarkable” (1996: 3-4). Disasters are indeed times of profound misery; they cause immense

damage to infrastructure, relationships, and human life. However, repeated studies, including

Fritz's, show that disasters are not only pathological: they are for many people convivial

moments of togetherness remembered later with nostalgia, not pain (Solnit 2009: 6; Fritz 1996:

19). The lively, welcoming, and accepting nature of disaster communities is founded in a

cohesiveness deeply tied to what sociologists James Coleman (1988) and Robert Putnam (2000)

call social capital. However, as the disaster passes, so too does the disaster community: that

easygoing openness fades as society reverts back to the norm. With that passing goes an

This quotation from an article published on April 29th, 1906 in the San Francisco weekly the Bulletin by
Jacobson, who was a staff writer for the paper. The article originally appeared eleven days after the 1906 San
Francisco earthquake under the title, “How it Feels to be a Refugee and Have Nothing in the World, by Pauline
Jacobson, Who is One of Them.” It was republished in Barker's Three Fearful Days, a compilation of first person
accounts of the quake. 1998: 283-284.
Cohen-Price 40

opportunity, usually missed, to generate social capital, build community, and reduce

vulnerability. With the right planning, a methodology for disaster relief could be created that not

only addresses the immediate needs of victims and sets the stage for community-directed

reconstruction but produces social capital and challenges many of the less tangible (and more

basic) impacts of structural violence.

Figure 4.1: Haas et al.'s Four Waves of Disaster Response

Adapted from Haas et al., 1977 cited in Wisner et al., 2004: 356

In 1977, Haas et al. created a model of the disaster recovery process. They mapped four

overlapping waves of activity, each experienced by the affected community in time. The first

wave, disaster “response,” is occupied with immediate actions such as search and rescue and

triage. The second, “relief,” is spent meeting the medical and health needs of survivors, such as

setting up clinics and shelters. Third, in the “reconstruction” phase, “medium-term” efforts are

made to return the affected community to a functional level. Finally, “longer-term economic and

social 'recovery,'” a years-long process, takes over (see Figure 4.1) (cited in Wisner et al. 2004:

356). The absolute linearity of this model has been debunked by many more recent studies

(Wisner et al. 2004: 357); however, the model remains useful, if but to make clear that after

disasters, affected communities—like individuals experiencing loss—do encounter emotionally

Cohen-Price 41

and socially distinct stages of recovery, each with its own particular pains and opportunities.

The overlapping wave concept is adopted in this study, but rather than looking at four

waves or phases, a simpler and hopefully more accurate separation of recovery into just two

phases is presented. The first phase, which we will call disaster relief, is marked by the

immediacy of health and safety needs, the temporary loss of control of the dominant economic

and social systems (some of which were discussed in Chapter Two), and a lack of coordination

between multifaceted and multileveled responders. The second, which I will call reconstruction,

is defined by a partial to complete return of dominant social and economic systems (i.e. goods

and services are sold rather than bartered or given); a combination, monopolization, or

hierarchical coordination of response efforts; and the undertaking of less immediate response

needs. 23

If structural violence exists wherever what is is restrained from reaching what could be,

we can find it in disaster everywhere we look. In that same reality, though, we also find countless

Figure 4.2: Stages of Just Disaster Response

This dichotomy is founded in the works of other authors. Haas et al. (1977, cited in Wisner et al. 2004: 356)
would likely note that relief as defined here contains their waves of response and relief, while my reconstruction
phase contains their reconstruction and recovery waves. Ripley's analysis (2008) of individual actions, fear,
heroic decisions, and groupthink fit squarely into the first phase, while the “risk-reduction objectives” defined by
Wisner et al. (2004: 330), if not achieved before a disaster, would be fought for in the later phase, during
reconstruction. Additionally, this dichotomy reflects Fritz's (1996) and Solnit's (2009) division between the
disaster epoch and normative conditions in social and economic systems function.
Cohen-Price 42

ways to challenge that disparity. The opportunities to do so in the earliest stages of disaster

response begin in mental processes and in basic social interactions: these opportunities will be

discussed here, and successful employment of them will be considered just relief. The following

chapter will address opportunities that arise in the later stages of recovery and focus on physical

structures and more complex social interactions; working to engage such opportunities can be

considered just reconstruction (See Figure 4.2).

“Paradise in Hell”: Challenging the Inertia of Structural Violence

Samuel Henry Prince, whose 1920 dissertation is considered to be the first published

work in the field of disaster science, wrote that during a disaster “life becomes like molten metal.

… Old customs crumble, and instability rules” (qtd. in Ripley 2008: ix). Indeed, a primary

component of a disaster event – regardless of its size – is that the social norms and mores in the

affected community are shed, as if they were an exoskeleton shaken off by the turbulence of the

disaster. The result is rarely (and almost never on a large scale) confusion, riots, looting, or chaos

(Fritz 1996; Solnit 2009: 30) 24. Instead, Solnit writes, a “paradise now arises in hell” in which

citizens step up to take care of each other, contribute to the common good, and consider

humanity and compassion more important than socioeconomics or old rivalries: “in the

suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another

way” (2009: 7; see also Wisner et al. 2004: 109).

Many intertwined utopian threads can be traced through the post-disaster epoch. The

concept of the stranger tends to disappear, and with it go many differences and disagreements

(Fritz 1996: 31; Ripley 2008: 111; Solnit 2009: 188). Victims of disasters are instantly recruited

as first wave of responders; most of the time, they step up and do an excellent job (Solnit 2009:

The media’s insistence on showing us more lawlessness than acts of kindness will be discussed later in the
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302, 311). The system to which society defaults is one known to disaster scholars and responders

as “mutual aid,” in which individuals look after and care for each other, without question of

economics or entitlement (Solnit 2009: 86). Moreover, many go far beyond reasonable

expectations, putting their own lives at risk to help others. Roger Olian, a witness of the January,

1982 crash of Boeing flight 737 into the Potomac River, jumped into the freezing water in

attempt to help the surviving passengers. He said later, “people who treat each other so badly in

everyday life can do tremendous things for each other in the worst of times” (qtd. in Ripley

2008: 196). Eventually, a helicopter plucked five passengers out of the water. Although Olian

never reached the victims, one survivor reported that Olian's determined rescue effort kept him

alive until the helicopter arrived (193).

In disaster, heroic acts like Olian's occur often, and creative and remarkably successful if

not death-defying contributions from normal citizens appear everywhere. In short, people on the

ground do what is necessary without thinking and are surprised afterwards to look back and

realize just how much they accomplished. On September 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist

attacks in New York City, writer and musician Tobin Mueller began handing out coffee and

donuts next to a mobile ambulance dispatch unit near the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. The donut

stand soon turned into a makeshift drop point for donations; after the Harbor Police discovered

they had useful supplies, boats heading towards Ground Zero started dropping by regularly.

Three days later, Mueller found himself running a warehouse on the piers with a staff of 200

volunteers, organizing and distributing supplies for rescue workers, running a makeshift free deli,

and requisitioning free hotel rooms for the “new homeless,” New Yorkers whose homes were

destroyed by or inaccessible because of the collapse of the towers (Mueller 2001). “It was so

much fun to participate in,” he said, “I forgot to sleep” (ibid.). Mueller and his 200 volunteers
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may have stood out in terms of visibility, but his experience is not an exception: Solnit (2009)

and Ripley (2008) recount numerous stories from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the 2005

destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, of citizens with little training and no guidance

stepping up to donate, share, volunteer, lead, rescue, or take care of someone they have never

met, even though Putnam reports that these are the very actions that have been declining in the

United States over the last century (2000).

Each one of these pro-social acts challenges the inertia of structural violence. The

problems to be solved during the disaster relief phase are no smaller, simpler, or clearer than the

everyday inequalities discussed in Chapter Two. They are, however, interpreted as more

immediate. Ripley, who calls citizen-responders to disasters “superheroes with learning

disabilities” (2008: xviii), notes that it is the “blinders on [their] brain[s]” (ibid.: 21) that allows

them to compute the immediacy but not the apparent impossibility of the tasks ahead of them,

and pushes them to act towards the greater good. Although the purpose of people like Mueller is

simply to lend a hand, their actions also build agency: those who participate in relief work

discover that they do indeed have the power to address even the biggest and most complex

problems. Mueller's actions, then, like the actions of many others in other times and places, were

acts of just disaster relief that helped individuals and communities reach closer to their potential

and set the stage for challenging the tangible effects of structural violence.

The “new social environment” in which such acts are so frequent (Wisner 2004: 109)

dissipates once “outside forces or authorities intervene … to superimpose external controls”

(Fritz 1996: 21). Yet this imposition is precisely what consistently occurs. On September 16th,

2001, Mueller's supply warehouse was taken over by FEMA and Mueller and his volunteers were

told to go home (Mueller 2001). Three weeks after the attacks, the city parks department shut
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down a vigil in Union Square (Solnit 2009: 203). Opportunity Objective #1: Provide
Solnit notes that some scholars call the clinching effective relief while building a social
momentum of action by creating
of control of the disaster relief process by a
coordinated partnerships with
politically and economically powerful minority grassroots responders already on the
“elite panic” (37). At best, those who claim power ground, asking them for sustained
help, and arming them with the right
do so because they believe that a hierarchical,
tools to provide it.
controlled central response will better serve

victims than a grassroots, bottom-up effort; this “ivory tower engagement” with affected

communities is thoroughly debunked by Farmer (2005: 224, see also 153). At worst, elite panic

is an attempt by those who held power in the old, pre-disaster system to regain the control the

disaster has taken away from them. Sociologist and scholar of natural hazards Kathleen Tierney

says, “Elites fear disruption of the social order; it challenges their legitimacy” (qtd. in Solnit

2009: 152). Solnit finds that “government fails as though it had been overthrown and civil

society succeeds as though it has revolted: the task of government, usually described as

'reestablishing order,' is to take back the city and the power to govern it” (2009: 152-153). In

either case, bureaucracies inadequately prepared to handle the “multiplying societal demands” of

disaster recovery overtake emergent groups of citizen-responders, often squelching the very

energy that could be used to generate positive agency-generating and relationship-building

cycles, in turn increasing the actual realizations of all those affected (Drury & Olson 1998 cited

in Solnit 2009: 152).

Although institutional disaster responders tend to overlook or mis-perform certain

important aspects of response work, they do at least have positive contributions to make. At a

minimum, it is these organizations that have the greatest access to the funds, equipment, and
Cohen-Price 46

logistical expertise crucial to effective relief. While grassroots response is fundamental, the

ability to mobilize large amounts of funds and resources is without a doubt an important asset.

Moreover, some top-down coordination is necessary to make sure resources are assigned

efficiently across the scope of the affected area and to be sure that efforts are not duplicated:

without an understanding of the entire disaster situation, needs cannot be accurately assessed and

prioritized (Mistovich & Karren 2008, O'Dempsey 2009). The key, then, is a partnership that

arms citizen responders already on the ground with the necessary tools and enlists their help in a

coordinated relief effort that serves the immediate needs of the community while exchanging

societal inertia for momentum (Opportunity Objective #1).

Social Capital: Challenging the Pervasiveness of Structural Violence

Wisner et al. note that five types of capital play roles in livelihood and vulnerability of

individuals and groups: human capital (skills, knowledge, energy), social capital (networks,

groups), physical capital (infrastructure, technology), financial capital (savings, credit), and

natural capital (natural resources) (2004: 96). All five affect and are affected by disaster. Indeed,

we have just seen that although hierarchical disaster relief fails if practiced alone, the physical,

financial, and human capital of institutional disaster responders is crucial to quality relief

efforts. 25

Social capital plays an especially interesting role in disaster response work. According to

Putnam in Bowling Alone, the definitive text on the subject, social capital is simply the value that

exists in social networks (2000: 19). Communities are worth more than just the human, physical,

and financial capital they contain; the ability to share and build those types of capital through

relationships of trust makes communities positive-sum. As discussed in Chapter Two, social

25 For a greater analysis of the importance of human capital in disaster response (in the form of building knowledge
and expertise about logistical organization and response methodologies), see O'Dempsey 2009.
Cohen-Price 47

capital is a remarkably powerful tool to challenge structural violence: strong social networks

through which information and resources are shared, and consensus and solidarity are built,

allow for unified action of suffering communities against their plight. Social capital is an

especially potent remedy for vulnerability: Putnam (2000: 289), Wisner et al (2004: 117), Ripley

(2008: 134), and O'Dempsey (2009: 83) agree that generating strong social networks is the key

to building resiliency. While building social capital is never easy, the previous pages have

already documented the unique opportunity disasters present for such community-building. The

“community of sufferers,” unique to the disaster epoch, is an instant social network which

rapidly spawns new relationships and serves as a coping mechanism for the pain and loss victims

experience (Fritz 1996: 28; see also Wisner et al. 2005: 113). More, opportunities for

volunteerism and trust building—two tools that further build social capital—are manifold in the

days and weeks after disaster.

Volunteerism is both an indicator of existing social capital and a generator of it. Indeed,

Putnam reports not only that “our readiness to help others [is] a central measure of social capital

(2000: 116), but that “people who have received help are themselves more likely to help others,

so simple acts of kindness have a ripple effect. In short, giving, volunteering, and joining are

mutually reinforcing and habit forming” (ibid.: 122). More specifically, the altruism that builds

social capital involves partnership: “doing with” instead of “doing for” (ibid.: 116-117). Or, in

the words of Paul Farmer, while “social justice” breaks down barriers, “charity” simply builds

them higher (2005: 153).

As an indicator of social capital, volunteerism is founded on connection to others and

therefore tends to remain within communities defined by race, class, and geographic location:

more accepting communities come with higher rates of informal and formal “doing with”-type
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altruism. Yet disasters tend to expand the reach of community: Fritz's community of sufferers

“does not necessarily correspond to any preexisting geographical or social limits,” as it “often

involves many people who have had little or no previous history of interaction” (1996: 29).

Therefore, new connections with and new empathy for a more diverse community produced by

disasters allow for acts of good-will to occur across social lines, especially in communities where

those lines originally carried much weight. In this way, acts of volunteering build relationships,

adding social capital to weak (and perhaps weakened by disaster) social networks.

Moreover, disasters can create entirely new channels for “doing with.” While hazards do

tend to affect the poor and less powerful most and wealthiest and most powerful least (see

Chapter Three), on the individual level some suffering is random: while the manager of a factory

may be less likely to be injured in an industrial accident than his employees, there is no guarantee

he will not be. Wherever suffering is to some extent arbitrary lies the chance to reverse the

typical volunteer typology: the poor man may rescue the rich; the prisoner may rescue the jailer.

Simply being given the opportunity to help empowers and builds agency in those who tend to

suffer most in everyday life (Farmer 2005: 153).

Trust also plays an especially important role in social capital creation. Putnam cleaves

trust into two distinct types: thick trust, a deep trust between individuals with whom personal

relationships have been built; and thin trust, a generalized, shallower trust that “rests implicitly

on some background of shared social networks and expectations of reciprocity” (2000: 136).

While thick trust is valuable for the individual's wellbeing, thin trust is most important for the

community, as it weaves a strong “social fabric” by “extend[ing] the radius of trust beyond the

roster of people whom we can know personally” (ibid.: 136). Trust reduces the “transaction

costs” of everyday life so much that a correlation has been found between more trustful
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communities and longer life expectancy (ibid.: 135). However, thin trust in the twenty-first

century is continually harder to come by (ibid.: 140).

In many recent disasters, the media has chosen to emphasize lawlessness and chaos over

orderly, cooperative relief work. The reality is usually far less unruly and therefore less

newsworthy (Solnit 2009: 122, 127). Instead, many opportunities for trust-building present

themselves after disaster. First, “generalized reciprocity,” Putnam states, “is bolstered by dense

networks of social exchange” (2000: 136); opportunities for such exchange proliferate as

victims, in absence of structure, resort to barter and gift economies. Second, those affected find

themselves in solidarity with each other, perhaps for the first time in generations (Fritz 1996;

Solnit 2009); the shared purpose of survival and regeneration implies a newfound layer of thin

trust, as individuals realize they are working with, not against, those around them. Third, Putnam

notes that social capital is most easily built in opposition to something else (2000: 361). When

government-funded response fails to mobilize the available energy of citizen responders or does

not satisfy the immediate needs of a suffering community, the cohesive response of the

community simultaneously against the government and for themselves presents a remarkable

opportunity to exchange political trust for new thin social trust. 26 Even when institutional

response does not fail, “the disaster” remains an opponent worthy of newfound community


The pervasiveness of structural violence makes it nearly impossible to fix. In order to

combat its many interconnected inequalities, the agency and coordination required to wage a

long battle on multiple fronts must also be ubiquitous. Disasters give communities a rare chance

to build social capital, the core ingredient needed to generate that agency and coordination.

Every opportunity to strengthen social networks, especially in communities most affected by

For an elaboration of the difference between social trust and political trust, see Putnam 2000: 137 and 142.
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structural violence in day-to-day life,

Opportunity Objective #2: In order to build the
must be capitalized upon agency and cohesion necessary to combat
structural violence and vulnerability, capitalize on
(Opportunity Objective #2). Without
every opportunity to build social capital by
altruism, thin trust, and a strong but
fostering and maintaining the community
inclusive community identity, connection, “doing with” altruism, and thin trust
generated by disasters and the relief phase of
structural violence is indeed an
disaster response.
impossible foe.

An Open Window: Challenging the Insidiousness of Structural Violence

Disasters build more than momentum and social capital. Both the clear differences

between post-disaster communities and their normal, day-to-day counterparts and the

conspicuousness of disasters' unequal impacts make the realities of structural violence obvious.

Clearly, as problems must be acknowledged before they can be addressed, this exposure can be a

powerful tool of change. In the United States, the mainstream political world has failed to

address the economic inequalities of everyday life in the United States since the 1960s (Tumulty

2007). This streak of silence was not broken until recently, when son of a millworker, Senator,

and nominee for Vice President John Edwards spoke in 2004 of two very different Americas:

refrains such as “One America does the work while another America reaps the reward” quickly

gave him the reputation of being the populist candidate (ibid.). 27 The media, too, has consistently

failed to report on the depth and breadth of domestic inequality. Finally, because those who

suffer most are conditioned for silence (Farmer 2005: 26; see Chapter Two), structural violence

is generally hidden from view.

If structural violence is rarely understood or discussed in a holistic and honest manner,

Fittingly, Edwards launched his 2004 campaign in New Orleans, a city ravaged by years of hurricanes and
glaring economic inequalities only one year before the destruction caused by Katrina (Tumulty 2007).
Cohen-Price 51

Solnit tells us that disasters make “visible who had Opportunity Objective #3: In
abundance and who was destitute” (2009: 293). After order to build a holistic agenda for
social change, interpret and
the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, widespread
publicize newfound problems and
hunger quickly became a major issue. However, “it's inequalities not as new issues
not as though hunger did not exist in San Francisco created by disaster but as latent,
preexisting issues manifested by it.
before April 18, though it was less visible and less

widespread; the city was in 1906 a many-tiered society with enormous opulence at the top and

grim destitution at the bottom” (ibid.: 28). Urban planner George Nez, who consulted on two

international recovery efforts following devastating earthquakes, says that during all stages of

response work, “everyone tends to blame the disaster for this or that problem. However,

gradually you come to realize that ninety percent of the problems you encounter were present

before the disaster event, waiting to be tackled” (1974, cited in Wisner et al. 2004: 363). While

Nez expresses this sentiment as a criticism, it can also be understood as an opportunity: we must

appreciate that many of the injustices experienced during and after a disaster event were not

caused by the disaster so much as manifested by it (Opportunity Objective #3); in this light,

every disaster is a chance to build a holistic agenda for social change that addresses latent

problems difficult or impossible to see in everyday life.

Vulnerability as a Tool

Perhaps the most significant manifestation of a normally latent issue in disaster is the

evolution of vulnerability into suffering. Where vulnerability has been discussed in Chapter

Three, and Chapters Seven and Eight will recount the suffering of two particular disaster-plagued

American communities, the complexities of suffering will receive little theoretical attention
Cohen-Price 52

here. 28 What is pertinent, however, is the Opportunity Objective #4: Capitalize on

opportunity offered by vulnerability-caused the shared experience of vulnerability
across a disaster-affected community to
suffering to call attention to vulnerability itself,
legitimize and institutionalize disaster
not just suffering. preparedness practices that will, over
Disaster preparedness is not a virtue or time, build social capital and reduce
resource that a community simply does or does

not possess; it is a skill, crucial for mitigating vulnerability, which must be fostered and practiced

so it is not forgotten. Two days before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States, the 125

residents of Grand Bayou, Louisiana, a fishing community on the Gulf of Mexico only accessible

by water, evacuated to safety. They did so, as they had done numerous times before, in a convoy

of fishing boats stocked with provisions. They had never been told to evacuate; the community

made the decision themselves—in fact, the evacuation order for the city of New Orleans,

seventy-five miles away, had yet to be given (Ripley 2008: 134-136). The key to Grand Bayou's

success was its tradition and practice of preparedness. This longstanding tradition was so strong,

Ripley states, that evacuations had become a regular enough occurrence that the children of the

town had learned to love them: “You're going out on a big ol' boat ride with all your friends,”

stated one teenager (qtd. in ibid.: 135). That tradition of preparedness (for them embodied as

frequent group evacuations), is inherently tied to social capital. Ripley informs us, “Groups

perform as well during a disaster as they performed before it. … What [the citizens of Grand

Bayou] had were long traditions, close relationships, and a culture of self-sufficiency. … The

connections between the people who lived there were strong” (ibid.: 134-135). The practice of

preparedness builds social capital and a sense of thin trust, and the new, ever-strengthening

See Wisner et al. 2004 for a very detailed theoretical analysis of vulnerability and suffering, both broadly and
applied to specific hazard types, with case studies from around the world.
Cohen-Price 53

bonds between community members in turn allow for ever-stronger readiness traditions. A

community practicing disaster preparedness, then, is participating in a positive cycle that

increases resiliency of the group and reduces vulnerability to hazard events: Practicing

preparedness both increases readiness for disaster and builds social capital, further increasing

readiness for disaster (Opportunity Objective #4).

How do we foster preparedness where it does not already exist? Because vulnerability is

such a latent concept, it is hard to generate the momentum to fight it in everyday life. However,

when communities find themselves victims of disasters caused by hazards they were not

prepared for, an opportunity presents itself to institutionalize a dedication to preparedness while

the memory of suffering is still strong. Ripley's account of the story of Rick Rescorla, head of

security for Morgan Stanley's World Trade Center office, serves as evidence (2008: 203-210). In

1990, the Vietnam veteran sent a letter to the Port Authority, which owned and managed the

Trade Center, regarding the possibility of a truck-bomb terrorist attack on the towers and

requested additional security in the subterranean parking garage. His request was never heeded.

In 1993, when Ramzi Yousef set off 1,500 pounds of explosives in the parking lot seventy floors

below the Morgan Stanley offices, executives finally began to listen to Rescorla: although the

bombing did not topple the tower or kill any Morgan Stanley employees, it did make manifest

just how vulnerable their “village nestled in the clouds” was (2008: 205). Rescorla employed the

attack as the validation he needed to make changes at the bank. He started running company-

wide fire drills from which no one was exempted and established a system of rotating fire

marshals, employees responsible for the evacuation of their section of the office. More

significantly, he claimed responsibility for his community, directing them to listen to his

instructions, not those of the Port Authority, in the event of a real emergency. When airliners
Cohen-Price 54

struck the Trade Center towers in 2001, Morgan Stanley employees knew where the stairwells

were; they knew to take the stairs down do the ground, not up to the roof; and when Rescorla

gave the order to evacuate even though the Port Authority told all employees to stay put, they


Rescorla was not a mayor or governor, and the Morgan Stanley offices are definitively

not a community defined by structural violence. Yet Rescorla’s success using an attempted

bombing to convince his employer that fire drills took precedence over executive meetings and

billion-dollar deals should serve as an example to community leaders: Rescorla did not miss the

opportunity to use the 1993 bombing to convince his community of the realities of vulnerability

and the necessity for its mitigation in the context of normal life. The military mnemonic device

Rescorla lived by is one that all communities should take to heart: “Prior Proper Planning and

Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance” (ibid.: 206). 29

For his entire career, Rescorla had had the insight needed to make the bank less

vulnerable. But that insight was only part of the equation. Fighting vulnerability requires the

presence of three distinct values:

(1) Tools (knowledge, experience, resources, best practices, etc) to decrease vulnerability

(2) A community-wide appreciation of vulnerability

(3) A willingness to dedicate time and resources to fighting vulnerability

Many tools already exist. But a willingness to utilize them—and develop more of them—hinges

entirely on whether communities appreciate and prioritize their own vulnerabilities.

After ushering Morgan Stanley employees out of the World Trade Center complex, Rescorla returned to Tower 2
to assist in the general evacuation. He and four of his deputies were killed when the towers collapsed. Not
counting Rescorla and his team, only eight employees (out of 2,687 at the WTC offices) died that day (Ripley
2008 [ii]).
Cohen-Price 55

Back to the Basics

If suffering is the manifestation of vulnerability, two options exist to combat it.

Symptom-addressing solutions such as temporary medical clinics or the distribution of water

bottles address the suffering only, while cause-addressing solutions like recruiting volunteers to

assist in future evacuations or training airline passengers for crash landings while they wait for

their flights 30 address vulnerability itself, the reason why disasters cause suffering. Just as giving

quality care to a cancer patient may require prescribing both pain-killers and chemotherapy,

holistic disaster relief must both address the immediate needs of victims while imparting

valuable lessons about vulnerability and the importance of preparedness for the next hazard


It is of course crucial never to forget the immediate needs of disaster victims: a disaster

relief methodology that does not feed, clothe, house, or attend to the medical needs of affected

communities fails to achieve its most basic goals. Just relief efforts achieve these goals without

forgetting that the earliest stages of disaster are those where the most change can be made.

Remember Prince's words—“Life becomes like molten metal. … Old customs crumble, and

instability rules” (qtd. in Ripley 2008: ix): with disaster, the traditions and norms of a stagnant,

difficult to mobilize society become relative and malleable. If agency and social capital can be

generated while providing tangible relief to victims, communities can become stronger and more

resilient than they ever were. Furthermore, agency and social capital generated early in disaster

response can be channeled into the reconstruction process that will follow.

In the 1990s, a proposal was made to the British government to place aircraft cabin simulators in airport
terminals, so passengers could practice opening emergency exits and using oxygen masks. The concept was
dismissed. See Ripley 2008: 213.
Cohen-Price 56

Chapter 5: Just Reconstruction—Suggestions for Long-Term

Disaster Response
“I talked to a very large national disaster company. … I asked them, ‘what's your recovery plan?’ They would go
into a state and talk to the governor and the governor's staff and tell them about the programs that can be utilized and
educate them on what’s going on. I asked, ‘what else would you do?’ And they would do nothing! So I said, ‘it won't
work.’ That intervention never trickles down to the local level. You’ve got to educate the officials and talk to them,
sure. But you’ve got to insert yourself in the trenches at the local level, and working with the city and county folks,
with the private sector folks, everybody, and work them through the process. That’s the only way recovery will

Chuck Banks
Greensburg, Kansas
January, 2010 31

The English word emergency evolved from the Latin ēmergo, to bring forth, which is also

the derivation of the word emerge. Indeed, in the emergency disaster, victims emerge as

responders, social cohesion emerges out of shared suffering, and the latent truths of deeply unjust

realities emerge from underneath the shroud of normalcy. However, the Latin that describes one

common sentiment of longer-term disaster response work—mainly, reconstruction and economic

recovery—tells a wholly different story. Tabula rasa—“clean slate”: disasters are chances to

wipe away what existed and build anew. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans developer Joseph

Canizaro said, “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have

some very big opportunities” (qtd. in Klein 2007: 4). Certainly, disasters are chances for

reinvention, but are they clean slates, carte blanche opportunities to completely start over, design

and build anew? The affected communities will change, but the slate will never be clean: social

relationships that are thick (close, strong) and thin (generalized), cultural connections to people

and physical places, and some understanding of community identity will remain. If they do not,

the fault must be assigned to people like Canizaro, not the disaster itself. Solnit reminds us that

“disaster throws us into … [a time] that is bolder, freer, less attached and divided than ordinary
Chuck Banks is the principal of risk reduction and disaster response consulting firm Chuck Banks Associates, and
previously directed the Rural Development branch of the Kansas USDA, a major actor in the coordinated response
effort to the May 2007 EF5 tornado that decimated Greensburg, Kansas. Banks 2010.
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times[:] not blank, but not tied down” (2009: 20). Klein tells us, “most people who survive a

devastating disaster want the opposite of a clean slate: they want to salvage whatever they can

and begin repairing what was not destroyed; they want to reaffirm their relatedness to the places

that formed them” (2007: 10). There is opportunity for change, but that change must be founded

in the priorities, visions, and identity of the community. Disaster may alter that identity, but it

will not destroy it, nor transform it beyond recognition.

We have looked in detail at social capital and its importance to disaster recovery; we turn

now to the role of its more tangible counterpart, physical capital: the things that play important

roles in our existence. Destroyed physical capital is a substantial roadblock in the recovery

process, as a community cannot sustain itself—or even be much of a community—without roads,

factories or farms, and schools. Rebuilding such physical capital is the biggest burden of

recovery work; it is also an opportunity for rebirth. What gets destroyed must get rebuilt, and in

that reconstruction comes many questions: what is built? Where and how? What materials and

what labor will be used? Who will be asked to contribute ideas? What will be prioritized in the

planning process? From the simple, such as designing all new buildings compatible with

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) code, to the complex, such as redesigning city-wide

systems such as the electric grid or public transportation networks, difficult choices will have to

be made. The answers to these powerful questions draw a fine line between total erasure of

community and its redefinition and rebirth.

Many mechanisms exist with which to rebuild physical capital after disaster. Three

different reconstruction methodologies are mapped in Figure 5.1. Each has its own structural

consequences for access to resources, suffering, and vulnerability, and therefore they each in turn

have a different effect on structural violence. The first fails to recognize or capitalize on the
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opportunity physically destructive disasters present:

1. When no great opportunity is recognized by those coordinating reconstruction efforts, or

when the coordination of such efforts is distributed among multiple non-cooperative

entities, reconstruction will occur haphazardly. In such situations, large-scale planning

may occur little or not at all, and the impacts of reconstruction on structural violence may

be mixed: some projects may operate with the community in mind, while others worsen

inequalities. The maxim that by not choosing, one does indeed make a choice is reflected

here: whatever outcomes haphazard reconstruction causes, an opportunity was missed to

make major infrastructural change.

The second two methodologies both recognize, in very different ways, the opportunity

reconstruction presents to make significant changes to infrastructural design and city planning:

2. When the inherent potential in reconstruction for the drastic alteration of systems is

exploited by those in power, power-fortifying reconstruction takes place. Plans will be

drawn, but quietly, with little or no input from the community. Decisions will be made

that consolidate power and increase profit potential of a select few, not serve the

community. The result is less participation and less equality: more structural violence.

3. When those who have the best interests of the community at heart seek community input,

invest in community-wide and project-based planning that takes into account a

community-driven vision for the future, and build systems in such a way to benefit the

entire community—especially those who are weakest, most poorly represented, and most

vulnerable—the result is very different. This practice is called just reconstruction.

Power-fortifying reconstruction makes inequality more pervasive and permanent than it was

beforehand. Moreover, an understanding of the cyclical and actor-less nature of structural

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violence indicates that haphazard reconstruction will also tend to increase inequality, as the poor

and most vulnerable will be paid the least attention. If just reconstruction is practiced, though,

physical capital can be rebuilt to new standards which prioritize health, equality, and the

mitigation of vulnerability, in turn reducing structural violence. Just reconstruction can never

fully happen without just relief, as it is reliant on the momentum, cohesion, and trust just relief

fosters within the affected community.

Figure 5.1: Reconstruction Opportunities

Structural “Adjustment”

While disaster response, like fire fighting and policing, has traditionally been a public

responsibility, the last thirty years have witnessed an encroachment of the private sphere into the

field. Klein's The Shock Doctrine (2007) investigates that privatization process. Klein finds that

the post-disaster epoch is anything but a “time-out for cutthroat capitalism, when we all pull

together and the state switches into a higher gear” to provide relief and support to its citizens

(ibid.: 516). On the contrary, a number of recent disasters have seen increased involvement by

corporations, many looking to profit more than to help. Recently, an important threshold has
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been crossed: as the frequency and intensity of disasters have increased (see Chapter Three), so

too has demand for disaster response specialists; hazard and disaster events are now frequent

enough to create a consistent niche market in which companies' entire business plans can be

founded on response work (Klein 2007: 16). Klein, who sees no indication that the number of

disaster events will decrease in the near future, suspects that the involvement of profit-based

private enterprise in disaster relief will only grow in the coming years.

Klein traces the roots did corporate involvement in disaster recovery to conservative

economist Milton Friedman and his lifelong work promoting a return to a purer capitalism (2007:

60). Friedman advocated for a three-part agenda, discreetly called “structural adjustment,” to

radically redesign the economic structure of any nation who would adopt it through deregulation,

expropriation of public assets, and massive cutbacks in social services (ibid.: 68, 206). Friedman

and his ideology hold a pivotal place in the genealogy of the modern economic neoliberalism

that Klein alleges is responsible for the privatization of many government services, including

disaster response.

More significant than Friedman's vision, though, was his means for achieving that vision:

he believed that such sweeping change required economic “shock treatment”: rapid policy

changes that would not work if introduced slowly (Klein 2007: 175). Since the 1980s, this

methodology has evolved significantly. In 1985, economist Jeffrey Sachs was invited to Bolivia,

to help combat the 20,000% annual hyperinflation that was decimating the country’s livelihoods

(Greenwald 1989). Although Sachs was a very different economist than Friedman, he did adopt

Friedman's belief in policy jolts as the most effective way to make economic change: “I don’t

believe we should move in small steps,” he said in regards to American debt forgiveness for

Latin American nations (qtd. in Greenwald 1989). Sachs went on to help a newly elected
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government pass a radical economic reform bill that affected every facet of the Bolivian

economy (Klein 2007: 181), and while the result of his work in Bolivia is the topic of much

debate, his success in imparting rapid, intensive change was noted by many. The conclusion: an

agreement that crisis—in this case, hyperinflation—is a prerequisite for achieving otherwise

politically infeasible radical change (ibid.: 195). From economic crises, realizing that other

shocks such as war, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters served the same end was just a small

leap (ibid.: 211). The final evolution occurred only recently. Klein states:

[Until] the late nineties … disasters and crises had been harnessed to push through radical
privatization plans after the fact, but the institutions that had the power … to respond to
cataclysmic events—the military,…the Red Cross, the UN, emergency “first
responders”—had been some of the last bastions of public control. Now … the crisis-
exploiting methods that had been honed over the previous three decades would be used to
leverage the privatization of the infrastructure of disaster creation and disaster response.
Friedman's crisis theory was going postmodern. (ibid.: 364)

Neoliberal structural adjustment resulted in the development of a body of corporations that move

from disaster event to disaster event to participate in reconstruction efforts. In what Klein calls

the “disaster capitalism complex,” these private entities exploit the “democracy free zone” of the

post-disaster epoch to promote power-fortifying reconstruction that not only has immediate

impacts on the affected community but increases the market share of for-profit response, so when

the next disaster occurs, corporations can go even further (ibid.: 14, 175).

Same Opportunity, Different Vision

Why is an understanding of structural adjustment and other forms of power-fortifying

reconstruction important to this analysis of just reconstruction? It goes deeper than their joint

appreciation for the opportunity disasters present for change. Much more importantly, the

champions of both methodologies use the same rhetoric. Friedman himself observed that crisis is

needed to escape the “tyranny of the status quo”:

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Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the
actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our
basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and
available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable. (qtd. in Klein
2007: 174)

Outside of the context of Friedman's (and his students') dedicated work to foster economic crises

throughout Latin America in order to claim power or sell off government industries to his

political cohorts, these words could appear in the concluding remarks of this work. And indeed

similar words are written there, for both parties see opportunity in the profound malleability of

communities affected by disaster. Adherents of just reconstruction, though, focus on quite

different aspects of that malleability (see Figure 5.2), and do not believe that the slate is ever

clean. While disaster may result in social turmoil, communities and cultures simply do not

Figure 5.2: The Different Aspects of Malleable Communities

What happens: Opportunity for Power- Opportunity for Just Reconstruction:
Fortifying Reconstruction:
Communities in Maintaining chaos builds Trust can be built, possibly for the first
shock divisiveness, denying the time, between groups across lines of race
community access to the power and class, increasing cohesion and agency.
needed to fight reconstruction
Suffering Individuals are so focused on Individuals, resilient enough to survive, are
individuals their own survival, they will not ready to chip in to rebuild their own
protest or even notice back- community.
door political deals.
Government Leaders can be convinced to Citizens rising up to coordinate and
stretched thin hand power and responsibility participate in their own relief can claim
for reconstruction and day-to- agency and advocate for continued
day administration of involvement in city planning and
historically public functions to administration, both during reconstruction
private entities. and after a return to post-recovery life.
Power structures Power is readily claimed. Power is readily distributed and
weakened decentralized.
Adapted from Klein 2007; Solnit 2009.
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disappear. In short, where students of Friedman see a Opportunity Objective #5:

potentially profitable “democracy free zone,” the just Recognize the opportunity
inherent in reconstruction work to
reconstruction angle finds a democracy-rich zone full
rethink, redesign, and rebuild
of citizens ready to claim responsibility for their own physical capital in ways that
vulnerability. challenge structural violence and
build social capital, without falling
Although they are not simple tasks, the first
victim to the tabula rasa
two steps towards adopting a methodology of just interpretation of disaster events.

reconstruction are, in this light, quite clear. First, the

Opportunity Objective #6:
opportunity to make pro-social change with
Reclaim the radically optimistic
reconstruction must be recognized by public response language usurped by pro-

agencies, community groups, and advocacy privatization entrepreneurs; use it

to describe justice-seeking, not
organizations (Opportunity Objective #5). Second,
power-centralizing reconstruction.
those groups must reclaim the radically optimistic

language usurped by the disaster capitalism complex to again represent the opportunity to build

networks, enhance community, and combat, not reinforce, structural violence (Opportunity

Objective #6).

It must be noted that, despite the reach of the disaster capitalism complex, the

involvement of private businesses in reconstruction—like the involvement of government in

relief work—is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, just as institutional disaster responders bring

necessary tools to disaster relief efforts, corporations are uniquely capable of filling certain

positive roles in the reconstruction process. The private sector tends to be more practiced in

making effective rapid decisions, working efficiently, and running complex logistical operations

than government agencies or not-for-profit organizations. Moreover, there exist private sector
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institutions that genuinely seek to build community, Opportunity Objective #7: Maintain
increase resilience, and utilize the input of residents and increase constructive private-
sector involvement in
and other local stakeholders.
reconstruction, while improving the
While Klein sustains an overwhelmingly government contracting process and
negative perspective on corporate participation in increasing oversight over
contractors to guarantee that
disaster response, she does mention the work of one
supporting affected communities as
private firm contracted to create a “catastrophic effectively as possible is the primary
hurricane disaster plan” for southern Louisiana objective of all participants in
(2007: 517). The exhaustive plan, designed with the

input of 270 experts, “spared no expense” and offered many constructive solutions. The

company, Innovative Emergency Management, completed the plan in 2004, one year before

Katrina; the federal government never implemented it (ibid.: 517; Fournier & Bridis 2005).

Ripley recounts a successful 2007 tsunami evacuation drill in northern California, which

occurred in one of the only company towns remaining in the United States. The company, a

construction firm named Danco, owned every property in the town; they sponsored the drill in

partnership with a local meteorologist (2008: 221). It makes sense: after all, where would Danco

be if their community of employees and the businesses that have emerged to support them were

wiped out by a tsunami? It is in Danco’s best interest—and indeed in the best interest of all

corporations—to support and protect their employees and their consumers. Where companies are

recognized for their good deeds, their popularity as employers and vendors will rise. Where they

allow their community to suffer, on the other hand, they will at a minimum damage their

reputation and could potentially lose their market or their workforce.

Along with government entities and individual residents, the private sector is a useful, if
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not necessary, partner in post-disaster reconstruction work; indeed, the most efficient

reconstruction effort will emerge from all three arenas simultaneously. Companies who want to

participate in reconstruction efforts, however, must be carefully screened and monitored to

ensure that the drive for profit does not overshadow the purpose of just reconstruction: to

redesign and rebuild physical capital to institutionalize equal access and reduce vulnerability and

structural violence (Opportunity Objective #7).

Planning and Community Input

As we have seen in Chapter Two, structural violence is pervasive – it is deeply rooted in

many aspects of society. The negative cycles that its multifaceted presence promotes makes it

especially difficult to combat. Fighting this pervasiveness requires both careful planning and

constant consideration of community input. Indeed, Wisner et al. consistently argue that “there is

no substitute for painstaking work with the survivors as co-designers and co-directors of the

recovery process” (2004: 270). Post-disaster community-driven planning is key to reducing

structural violence because it creates two distinct contributions to a positive cycle of social

change. First, contributing to the planning process arms communities with the tools they need to

challenge structural violence: being given the opportunity to take ownership over aspects of

rebuilding their own community increases power and trust and gives residents the tools and

traditions they need to claim agency in other aspects of both rebuilding and day-to-day

governance once the reconstruction period is over (Putnam 2000). Second, the final product,

infrastructure truly built to fulfill the needs of the community, directly reverses structural

violence, thus increasing the community's social and financial capital (and therefore their ability

to combat other aspects of structural violence) in the long run. 32

“It is surely plausible that design innovations like mixed-use zoning, pedestrian-friendly street grids, and more
space for public use should enhance social capital” (Putnam 2000: 408).
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Consider the example of an infrastructural inequality of urban public transportation. Say

that a bus line that serves the poorest neighborhood in a city stops running before midnight due

to purported safety concerns. The lack of late bus service has both direct and indirect

implications for the neighborhood. First, residents' lack of access to legitimate employment

limits financial and social capital and pushes more residents to turn to illegitimate employment

opportunities in the community, increasing the likelihood of gun violence and decreasing trust.

Incidentally, the increased violence justifies the decision of the bus operator to deny service, thus

repeating the cycle over from the beginning. 33 The resulting decrease in social capital prevents

the community from effectively mobilizing in opposition to that decision. After a disaster,

concurrent installation of lights along the bus route as the road is rebuilt could quell the bus

operator’s safety concerns. Potentially even better, a rail-based public transportation service with

more safety measures for transit employees and riders could be extended into the community.

This tangible change reduces at least one structural inequality. More significantly, if community

members agitate for change or actively involve themselves in the new system’s planning process,

they also claim some of the agency that had been systemically taken from them.

Holistic, visionary planning with the input of community members and stakeholders,

then, is crucial to just reconstruction (Opportunity Objective #8). It is not, however, easy.

Planning takes time, and many residents and business owners are averse to waiting to see how

their houses, stores, factories, or offices will fit into a larger plan. Klein tells us that victims want

to rebuild and repair their lives as soon as possible in order to “reaffirm their relatedness to the

places that form them” (2007: 10). Yet that energy and dedication to community must be checked

by a willingness to take time to make forward-thinking, community-minded decisions.

It is important to note that the legitimacy of the bus operator's initial observation that violence in the
neighborhood may put its employees at risk is almost completely irrelevant, as the cycle the decision produces
eventually does make the neighborhood unsafe, justifying the original claim.
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Additionally, challenges exist to collecting Opportunity Objective #8: Invest

input from a community of victims. Where the time and energy into holistic and
visionary community and urban
immediate needs of disaster relief have not been met,
planning, seeking input from the
seeking community input is both difficult (people will community and other
pay little attention to questions about visionary futures stakeholders at every turn.

when they have not yet tracked down their missing child or parent) and unethical (devoting

extensive labor and energy to gathering information while needs of medicine, shelter, and hunger

have not been met due to a lack of resources can only be described as misplaced priorities). Klein

recounts the words of a peace activist in Baghdad after the American bombing and invasion: “No

one here cares about privatization … what they care about is surviving” (Michael Birmingham

qtd. in Klein 2007: 412). Farmer relays a Haitian phrase of similar sentiment: Pa gen lapé nan tét

si pa gen lapé nan vant: “there can be no peace of mind if there is no peace in the belly” (2005:

228): victims must be safe, fed, and housed before the community can begin to build consensus

about rebuilding for the future. Where evacuation occurs, the process of distributing and then

retrieving people is also critical to collecting community input: where populations are scattered

haphazardly in surrounding regions or left to their own means to return, even finding community

members can prove difficult. It is noted again, then, that just reconstruction, especially planning

and the gathering of community input, relies heavily on the success of just relief.

Re-visioning and Rebuilding in Partnership

With good planning and after considering community input, infrastructure central to the

everyday functionality of society must be rapidly rebuilt in order to open the door to returning

community members and to new residential, commercial, or industrial developments. Some

infrastructure, as we will see in Chapters Seven and Eight, must be rebuilt or replaced before it is
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safe for residents to return: it would have been a Opportunity Objective #9: Re-vision
major epidemiological hazard, for example, to infrastructure design to remedy
structural violence, and then rebuild
allow residents of the Lower Ninth Ward of New
infrastructure to new standards as
Orleans to move back after Katrina to a efficiently and rapidly as possible
neighborhood with no running water or plumbing while assisting (physically, logistically,
and financially) in the reconstruction
(Sylvain-Leer 2010). Access to electricity and
of private homes and businesses.
fuel, as well as communications equipment such

as functional cellular towers and shipping channels along which rebuilding materials can be

moved, are all crucial to the return of families and businesses. Other types of infrastructure may

not be fundamental to the physical return of individuals, even though they are the cornerstones of

community, indispensable for the return to everyday life. Public transportation systems have

already been referred to in this chapter; schools, hospitals, and parks, as well as business districts

or main streets, can be added to that list. Schools are especially important: without a functional

K-12 educational system, even one housed in temporary structures, family groups will simply

not return home (Headrick 2010).

These structures must not only be rebuilt – they must also be re-visioned. Structural

violence is founded on complex interactions of many facets of society, including unequal access

to infrastructural resources such as good healthcare or safe drinking water and unequal

distribution of infrastructural health risks (and eyesores) such as dumps, factories, and power

plants (See Chapter Two). In day-to-day life, these systems are extremely basic to the

functioning of society, yet they are not functional for everyone: they are accessible and useful

only to certain groups. These systems must be reformed, yet their economic and social

importance as well as their complexity makes them difficult to change outside of the context of a
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disaster. The damage to these systems caused by disasters, however, creates an opportunity:

where infrastructure is destroyed, it must be repaired, and insurance money, resources from the

nonprofit sector, and state and federal emergency funds are made available to do so. Funding

gaps are inevitable, especially for projects that alter or expand on what was: available resources

rarely cover all the costs of an infrastructural project, and insurance money and federal funds

such as those from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are designed to refund only a

portion of the value of what did exist. Nonetheless, the opportunity to use available funds to

create a better and more equal infrastructural foundation on which the affected community can

rebuild physical and social capital is key to just reconstruction (Opportunity Objective #9).

Chapters Seven and Eight will delve into the issues of funding and infrastructure reconstruction

at much greater depth.

Hazard Mitigation

In Chapter Four, the opportunity to use disasters and their manifestations of vulnerability

to alter mindsets and convince community members and leaders that risk mitigation is an

extremely important investment was discussed. Here, the result of that mindset change is

considered: where the greater appreciation for human vulnerability that comes with disaster is

utilized to generate momentum for mitigation work, some amount of reconstruction resources

can be dedicated to the physical reduction of vulnerability. Wisner et al. remind us that physical

vulnerability to hazard events is just one aspect of the greater concept of vulnerability (2004:

339). Yet it is nonetheless an important part: true reduction of risk requires changes to social

structure as well as physical environment. Many tangible changes can be made in the aftermath

of disaster that can contribute to the mitigation of communities' vulnerability to hazard events

(Opportunity Objective #10).

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Various changes in construction methods for Opportunity Objective #10:

new buildings and infrastructure can be effective in Rebuild to mitigate vulnerability to
future hazards by (a) sponsoring
mitigating risk (Opportunity Objective #10a). In
programs for home-, business-, and
flood areas, for example, houses as well as road and landowners; (b) considering the
railways can be elevated to reduce damage of impact of development and global
warming on hazard strength and
potential floodwaters. Damaged or undamaged
frequency; and (c) fostering the
masonry buildings in earthquake regions can be regrowth of natural barriers that
reinforced to protect from future quakes, and protect coastal areas from water-
borne hazards.
structures destroyed by earthquakes can be rebuilt

with vibration-resistant materials. One promising recent development in vulnerability-reducing

building methods is Insulated Concrete Form (ICF). ICF, interlocking modular foam blocks that

can be stacked then filled with concrete to construct the walls of a residential or commercial

building, are not only significantly more energy-efficient but can withstand far more wind, fire,

and moisture damage than can a wood-frame house, protecting them from many different natural

and technological hazards (ICFA n.d.). While building choices, especially those that increase

building cost, may not be easy for homeowners and builders to make, changes to building codes

and tax credit programs can mandate, recommend, or incentivize building to higher standards of

risk mitigation.

If governments are to make such changes, it is especially important that they address the

unequal distribution of vulnerability: the poor tend to be the most vulnerable to hazard events, as

well as the least able to afford individual acts of mitigation such as those mentioned here.

Therefore, in the words of Farmer, “our commitments, our loyalties, must be primarily to the

poor and vulnerable” (2005: 229, emphasis in original): policy changes should support those
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most at risk in becoming less vulnerable to future hazards.

In some situations, overall vulnerability has been increased due to human activity, and

can therefore be reduced systemically by reversing the risk-producing processes (Opportunity

Objective #10b & c). This is especially (but not only) true for tsunamis and coastal storms like

cyclones and hurricanes, in which natural coastal ecosystems play a key role in protecting

residents of coastal areas. One international environmental conservation agency specifically

addresses the importance of conservation to reduce vulnerability to natural hazards:

The Indian Ocean tsunami highlighted both the vulnerability of poor people to natural
disasters as well as the role resilient ecosystems can play in protecting human lives and
livelihoods and mitigating the impacts of extreme events. There is evidence that in some
places, intact coastal ecosystems and natural barriers such as mangroves and other coastal
forests, coral reefs, sand dunes, sea grass belts and mature shelterbelt plantations played a
crucial role in saving human lives by breaking the devastating impact of the incoming
waves and acting as the first line of defense. Where coastal ecosystems and natural
barriers had been degraded or converted to other land uses, the damage was far greater.
(IUCN 2008)

As settlement increases near coastal areas (Wisner et al. 2004: 247) and as development and

global warming cause the destruction of those natural barriers (Tibbets 2006; Speth 2004),

populations become ever more vulnerable to these water-borne hazards. Moreover, as mentioned

in Chapter Three, scientists are currently investigating the relationship between global warming,

resource extrication, and development with natural hazard events less typically associated with

human impact such as earthquakes (Guha-Sapir et al. 2004: 23). The mitigation of coastal

vulnerability to natural hazards must include fostering the re-growth of these natural barriers to

protect the growing coastal settlements nearby. Bioremediation programs, however, are

extremely expensive and labor-intensive (Tibbets 2006). General hazard mitigation proves to be

even more problematic, as it requires restricting or managing potentially profitable development

and, on a larger scale, global warming, two agendas for which there is little support in the
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developed world (Speth 2004).

Laboring Together

In this chapter alone, six objectives have already been outlined which can, if completed,

lead to a just reconstruction process that best serves communities affected by disaster. Each one

considers process as well as results, and directly or indirectly mandates both financial expense

and human labor be directed towards specific goals that will reduce vulnerability and increase

equality. In short, for reconstruction to be truly just, as much diligence must be paid to the means

as to the end. The final opportunity objective, then, addresses another aspect of the means of

reconstruction: who actually performs the tasks of reconstruction?

Locals should participate in every stage of the reconstruction process (Opportunity

Objective #11). Members of the affected community should be more than just the “co-designers

and co-directors” of reconstruction (Wisner et al. 2004: 270): wherever possible they should be

the agents of their own recovery. Wisner et al. report that participation in reconstruction can

reinforce the agency of groups traditionally relatively powerless, such as women (2004: 365),

and Klein notes that locals would see a job in

Opportunity Objective #11: Private
the reconstruction effort “not only as a job but
sector for-profit reconstruction ventures
as part of healing and re-empowering their should seek to employ local workers at

communities” (2007: 521). living wages, and not-for-profit

participation in reconstruction should
Indeed, in or out of the context of
utilize local volunteers and encourage
disaster, participation in positive community sweat equity wherever possible; such

projects builds social capital that can be local involvement will simultaneously
generate physical, financial, and social
beneficial later on (Putnam 2000). However,
capital in affected communities.
businesses contracted to rebuild have a history
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of restricting who they hire, at times importing labor from outside the affected community. This

not only denies many residents meaningful and gainful employment but actually increases post-

disaster unemployment rates by upping the number of workers in an already job-poor

environment (Klein 2007: 521). In the not-for-profit reconstruction sector, an important

distinction can be drawn between those organizations that “do with” and those that “do for”

(Putnam 2000: 116): organizations like Habitat for Humanity, for example, do with by requiring

that families dedicate hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” into their future homes (Habitat for

Humanity 2010). Organizations that “do for” not only do not improve the situation: their

“misguided efforts to help” have a tendency to exacerbate the problem, as they remedy

symptoms but “mask the source of [the poor’s] suffering” (Falconer 2010: 69). Blind

participation in reconstruction, then, can be dangerous, and individuals, non-profit organizations,

and for-profit firms must seek their own obsolescence as they work, looking forward to the day

their job is no longer necessary.

Seeking Holistic Recovery

Studies exist that specifically address “holistic” approaches to reconstruction; (Monday et

al. 2001 and Wisner & Adams 2003 cited in Wisner et al. 2004: 354). Experience tells us that

such methodologies are not easy (ibid.: 355-256). There are many challenges to capitalizing on

the opportunities presented by disaster and achieving the eleven objectives outlined in this and

the previous chapter. Compromises must always be struck: should responders fill immediate

needs or take time to plan? Address the needs of individuals or those of the community? Seek

consensus or move forward without total agreement? There are no obvious answers, except

perhaps that flexibility is paramount and that no two disasters (or disaster communities) are so

alike that the successes of one can be blindly applied to others. On paper these objectives make
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for a stronger, more equal, and less vulnerable society. They must now be applied to the chaos of

real disasters and their respectful relief and reconstruction efforts. We turn then to two case

studies of American communities recently devastated by disaster, each striking its own motley

path through the complexities of recovery.

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Chapter 6: Bridging the Gap—An Application of Theory to

“To subject to scrutiny the mechanisms which render life painful, even untenable, is not to neutralize them; to bring
to light contradictions is not to resolve them.”

Pierre Bourdieu
Quoted in Farmer 2005: 224

“Analysis means bringing out the truth, no matter how clumsy or embarrassing or inexpedient. It means
documenting, as Neier recently put it, 'who did what to whom, and when?' Strategy asks a different question: What
is to be done?”

Paul Farmer 2005: 230

While there are clearly wrong ways to provide disaster relief and run reconstruction

programs, there is no singular correct method. The goals of just relief and just reconstruction,

much like Galtung's definitions of peace and violence (1969), are specific enough to exclude

actions that squelch positive contributions of emergent individuals and groups and fail to capture

the opportunities presented to challenge and fix social wrongs, but broad enough that every

individual and group participating in disaster response can find their own way of practicing

them—and indeed they must, as the aftermath of disaster leaves no time for micromanagement.

Do the concepts investigated here find a home in the chaos of actual disaster response?

Answering this question is the final goal of this work. There is no timeline, no one expected

series of events that occurs in the response effort to every disaster. Moreover, it may perhaps be

incorrect to even name the numerous actions that occur after a disaster as one singular response

“effort”: in reality we find many people moving simultaneously but individually towards similar

goals, whose work overlaps and conjoins at some points but not at others. Response is a

multifaceted, chaotic reality on which it is difficult to impose structure. What, then, do just relief

and just reconstruction really look like?

Over the last six months, I have explored the disaster response processes of two
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American cities recently devastated by natural hazard events. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck

Florida and then the Southern Coast of the United States, causing damage in Louisiana,

Mississippi, and parts of Alabama. The decimation of New Orleans was particularly severe due

to the flooding that followed. Two years later, a tornado warning was issued for twenty counties

in Kansas. The storm system caused damage in a number of those counties, and one tornado it

produced, 1.5 miles wide and the first in US history strong enough to warrant an EF5 rating on

the newly minted Enhanced Fujita scale, decimated the town of Greensburg.

I have studied the successes and failures of disaster response in the most populous and

densely damaged city affected by each of these hazards—New Orleans, Louisiana, and

Greensburg, Kansas—culminating in a series of on-site interviews conducted in January, 2010. 34

From January 5th to January 12th, I conducted nineteen interviews in New Orleans with twenty-

five individuals, including city officials, leaders of neighborhood recovery groups, local

academics, and an insurance adjuster. From January 13th to January 21st, I conducted eleven

interviews in Greensburg with thirteen members of that small community, ranging from the

Mayor and ex-Mayor to the County Historian, employees of a nonprofit organization, and one

member of my own generation, a college student who had been attending high school in

Greensburg at the time of the tornado. The interviews, recorded using a hand-held digital voice

recorder, were transcribed by various Goucher College students hired by the Peace Studies


The thoughts and experiences of those I interviewed have been relayed here to the best of

my ability, augmented by texts and films which retell many other first-person accounts. In the

Three interviews were conducted earlier. In December 2008, I spoke via telephone with Laurel Ryan, a program
specialist for FEMA. In October 2009, I met with Howard County Fire Chief Charlie Sharpe at his offices in
Columbia, Maryland. In December 2009, I spent an afternoon discussing disaster relief with Jim Stevenson, a
Mass Care Manger with the American Red Cross, in Marin, California.
Cohen-Price 77

next two chapters, the reader will find only infrequent citations referring to published materials.

Where interview subjects are quoted directly or information from a specific interview is utilized,

the name of the interviewee can be found in text. Where multiple interviewees, multiple

published works, or a combination of both agree on factual information, I have deemed that

information common knowledge and omitted a citation.

The purpose of the next two chapters is not to retell the entire story of either disaster, nor

to address every facet of emergency response. My goal is simply to use the oral histories I have

gathered to begin to investigate the intricacies of disaster response. I am indebted to those who

shared their time and memories with me, as well as to the Goucher Peace Studies Program,

which funded both my travel and the transcription process: I would never have been able to

complete this project without them. Thank you.

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Chapter 7: The City that Care Forgot

One cubic meter of water weighs approximately one ton.

The story of New Orleans' most recent engagement with disaster has been told and retold

many times. In August of 2005, a tropical storm named Katrina moved northwest from the

Atlantic Ocean towards the Louisiana coastline. After roughing up Miami and other parts of

Coastal Florida, Katrina was upgraded to a Category 3 hurricane on Friday, August 26th. The next

day, as Katrina continued to move directly towards New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin issued a

voluntary evacuation order and many residents with vehicles began to leave the city. Sunday,

August 28th, the National Hurricane Center upgraded Katrina to a Category 5 storm, and Nagin

issued a mandatory evacuation of the city. On Monday, Katrina, downgraded to a Category 3,

made landfall just east of New Orleans.

City officials, including Chief Administrative Officer Dr. Brenda Hatfield, thought the

city had gotten lucky, narrowly avoiding disaster for the umpteenth time: “Right after the

hurricane, we came out and surveyed the city. We had a great deal of wind damage; there was

flooding in some spots, but very little.” As the day progressed, however, the levees and

floodwalls that protected New Orleans began to fail: the Industrial Canal, a shipping channel

which separated the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East from the rest of the city, as well as

two drainage canals on the northwest side of the city, the 17th Street and London Avenue Canals,

breached. Additionally, dozens of levees protecting the outermost edges of the city were

overtopped by storm surges of up to twelve feet. Hatfield's deputy continued, “It wasn't until

after someone said the levies broke and everyone looked at each other because we understood

what that meant. … That's when it [became] a whole different ballgame.”

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All told, 80% of the city was underwater by the end of the day (FEMA 2005). That water,

mixed with sewage and other pollutants, sat for days or weeks before it was totally pumped out

of the city. Little more explanation of the hazard itself will be attempted here, although such in-

depth accounts can be found in other texts.35 Instead, seeking accounts of just relief and just

reconstruction or attempts at their implementation, we turn to how individuals—some in official

capacities, others responsible to no one but themselves—responded to the disaster that followed.

I investigate four aspects of the recovery process: the importance (1) of access to resources and

(2) of good, grounded leadership, (3) the limitations of local government to respond, and (4) the

difficulties of community-directed reconstruction planning in a place as diverse and damaged as

New Orleans.

New Orleans meets Katrina

“New Orleans was a sick city before the storm,” says high school history professor,

author, and head of the Louisiana Historical Society Howard Hunter. Indeed, New Orleans has a

long history of both distrust and vulnerability. Its racial history is complex, with conflict dating

back to the settlement of the French and continuing through the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil

War. Like other southern cities, racial tension can be high. But, due to its European and

Caribbean roots, the city tends to segregate itself less than others, at least in terms of cultural

participation. According to Hunter, “what's hardwired in[to this] city is a distrust of the other: a

distrust of Americans [by the French Creoles], American distrust of Creole, distrust of Irish and

German, and then the Italians. …[However,] people in New Orleans have always been able to

get along pretty well.” So racial stresses and the structural violence of race-based inequality,

although unusually latent much of the time due in part to participation in shared cultural

phenomena, always existed.

See McQuaid & Schleifstein 2006, Horne 2006, and Brinkley 2006 for such accounts.
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Figure 7.1: Severity of New Orleans Flooding

Flood Depth from Hurricane Katrina

Image from NOCSF 2007: 27

Huge economic disparities existed within city lines. The thriving economy that revolved

first around buying, selling, and shipping cotton and sugar and later around a bustling seaport

complex that employed tens of thousands of workers became a computerized container port in

the 1980s, still a crucial trading hub but no longer a large employer. A city built for 650,000 by

2005 had less than 500,000 residents, more than a quarter of whom were poor. Kevin Brown,

born and raised in Holly Grove and the executive director of the Trinity Christian Community,

that neighborhood's longstanding neighborhood association, speaks to the structural violence of a

shrinking economy. The shortage of jobs, added to a history of racial tension and a majority

black population that elects black leaders, caused significant inequalities of access to resources

and services based on economic class differences to emerge: “when you've got African
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Americans in power and yet the conditions [of inequality] haven't changed, it then ceases to be a

racism thing and becomes a class thing.” Described as racism, classism, neither, or both, high

unemployment and substantial inequalities of wealth across and within neighborhoods are two

indicators of structural violence in a city plagued with the disease.

Hunter further explains that New Orleans is bound heavily in neighborhood identities

that, when combined with strong race- and class-based lines, can create a “kind of tribalism,”

especially in crisis. And New Orleans has no shortage of traditions that foster that tribalism, from

neighborhood-based festivals to regular hurricane warnings and evacuations. When Katrina

began to bear down on New Orleans, then, the city was an amalgamation of tightly-knit

communities with a fair amount of distrust of city government (after years of corruption) and of

each other. In the words of Putnam, New Orleans had a surplus of thick trust, but very little thin


The city was also particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. The expansion of

the early 20th century had pushed residents off of the higher ground near the banks of the

Mississippi to lower elevation areas closer to Lake Pontchartrain and further east, towards Lake

Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico. The drying and paving over of wetlands pushed soils down even

further, resulting in a city shaped like a bowl floating in a bathtub full of water – its walls, an

aging network of levees and floodwalls, kept the city dry even though much of the land sat well

below sea-level (Tibbets 2006). Many studies (and one recent federal court decision 36) delve

deeply into the levee and pump failures and the negligence those failures implied; these studies

also will not be discussed here. It is in this complex context that New Orleans prepared for,

evacuated from, and responded to the Katrina disaster event.

See the 19 November, 2009 US District Court ruling, in which the United States Army Corps of Engineers was
found liable for flood damage in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish due to the Corps’ failure to
maintain the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet canal (Robertson 2009).
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Connecting to Resources

If New Orleans is shaped like a bowl, Broadmoor is the bottom of that bowl. The

neighborhood of about 7,500 people is in the geographic center of the crescent-shaped upriver

section of New Orleans, nestled between Claiborne Avenue and Earhart Boulevard (see Figure

7.1). According to Jonathan Graboyes, a post-Katrina New Orleans transplant and the first full-

time employee of the Broadmoor Development Corporation, the neighborhood is also

demographically representative of the city as a whole, in terms of race and poverty. Broadmoor

flooded to the tune of six to eight feet, and every house in the neighborhood had to be gutted.

Since the storm, however, the neighborhood has rebounded stunningly, with little help from the

city, state, or federal government. Broadmoor is noted by government officials and activists alike

as the success story of community-generated recovery: in a word, just reconstruction. How did

Broadmoor manage this feat?

It is clear that a principle need in disaster response is the rapid deployment of resources to

locations where they are needed most. While prepared responders and rebuilders armed with the

right tools and adequate funding sources are not by definition participating in just relief or

reconstruction (they can use their tools and money for a variety of positive or negative ends),

access to such resources is crucial if any justice is to be found in recovery. On Sunday, August

28th, the day before most of the flooding occurred, FEMA Director Michael Brown told his

subordinates, “if you feel like you need to [do something], go ahead and do it. I'll figure out

some way to justify it. Tell Congress or whoever else it is that wants to yell at me. Just let them

yell at me. Don't worry about it—in fact, I don't want any of these processes in our way” (qtd. in

McQuaid & Schleifstein 2006: 180-182). Yet somewhere down the line, this message failed to

reach the right people. Access to the funding, expertise, and permission to take necessary actions
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was hard to come by, for neighborhood leaders and city leadership alike. Broadmoor was no

exception, and received little to no help from the government; but, unlike most other

neighborhoods, they rapidly charted their own course.

Figure 7.2: “Shrinking the Footprint”

The circle in the southwest corner of the map encapsulates the Broadmoor neighborhood.
Image from Wallace, Roberts & Todd 2006: Figure 30

After the hurricane, Mayor Nagin contracted the city planning firm Wallace, Roberts, &

Todd to author the Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) plan—the city’s first attempt to create a

holistic methodology for redevelopment. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) was tasked by the firm

to develop the land use chapter of BNOB. ULI’s initial recommendations, released in November

2005, included “shrinking the footprint” of the city in response to low expectations of population

and job growth, as well as the extreme vulnerability of the lowest-lying neighborhoods. ULI

argued that the city not immediately rebuild certain sections of the city and eventually convert

some of the lowest terrain to green space that would act as a natural storm drain (Russell 2006;
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Carr 2005) (See Figure 7.2).

The Broadmoor Improvement Association, which has in some form existed since the 1920s,

was catapulted into action by the seeming dismissal of the entire neighborhood by the city

government. The appearance that the Urban Land Institute wanted to turn their home into wetlands

ignited neighborhood residents. Graboyes says that,

People woke up early January 2006 and saw … [that] Broadmoor is a green dot and
going to be demolished … and become a drainage park for the rest of the city. … That
Green Dot recommendation was ultimately the fuel of the fire for the community to come
together, organize and start to consider … what [we] need to do to insure that this
community does come back.

Although the plan was never adopted (see footnote 39), the controversy provided the trigger

event that the community needed to rally together, and the long pedigree of the Improvement

Association and its director, Latoya Cantrell, gave the group the legitimacy to lead that rallying

cry. But what was and continues to be the greatest success of Broadmoor is the human and

financial capital the neighborhood has been able to attract and utilize with little assistance from

the city government.

The Improvement Association, and its post-storm cousin the Broadmoor Development

Corporation, quickly built relationships with a local church, the Annunciation Mission, which

had just refocused its mission to serving the needs of its newly disparate and homeless

community. The combined front began early after the storm to bring volunteer groups from

around the country to gut and later rebuild houses. While the city had hired contractors to gut

flooded homes throughout the city, Graboyes recounts that the church’s volunteers gutted 40% of

the neighborhood's homes far sooner and more effectively than the contracted businesses would

have. Most significantly, as the city struggled with multiple iterations of unsuccessful and

debatably community-driven recovery plans (discussed in later pages), Broadmoor's early

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successes piqued the attention of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Graboyes reports that the school sent a delegation to New Orleans to provide the expertise

needed to create a neighborhood recovery plan: “they did not try to push an agenda; they saw the

organic growth of the community to galvanize around the process and [only] provided the

technical expertise for the planning.”

By June 2006, six months before the city completed a master plan that garnered at least

some degree of consensus, Broadmoor had published its own cohesive document to guide the

reconstruction and rebirth of the neighborhood. Four years later, Harvard continues to participate

in urban planning and organizing efforts in the neighborhood, students from countless other

schools travel regularly to Broadmoor to lend their technical knowledge or simply provide labor,

and six full-time AmeriCorps members assist the Improvement Association and Development

Corporation's small staffs.

Broadmoor represents both wonderful success and total failure. As of January, 2010,

approximately 85% of Broadmoor's properties had been rebuilt or were actively under

construction, a number likely rivaled, at least among flooded areas, by only the far wealthier and

homogeneous Lakeview neighborhood. Displaying good leadership and flexibility, select

members of the Broadmoor neighborhood built partnerships with community institutions, sought

input from as many residents as possible, and connected resource-rich assets with individuals and

organizations on the ground willing to work to fulfill the needs of individuals and the wider

community. Unisa Barrie, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority project manager who

works with Broadmoor, speaks highly of the neighborhood's self-organization:

They bring partners to the table. Whatever they don’t have as far as capacity they know
how to get … whether it is partnership from universities across the country to bring
planners out to the city, or work[ing] with folks within the city to help them build that
capacity. It is because of … their willingness to work with folk other than just within that
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neighborhood, in my opinion, that has [made] them the model…. [They] work with
people within the neighborhood, while also looking outside for … best practices.

On January 6th, 2010, the day I visited Broadmoor, students were attending their first day of

classes at the neighborhood's newly completed elementary school. Word of the neighborhood's

success has spread beyond New Orleans: on top of receiving much media recognition,

Broadmoor was visited by leaders of communities in Iowa looking to use their model of

community-generated (and community-generating) recovery after the 2008 floods. In short,

Broadmoor is a prime example of community-minded leaders working in the aftermath of

disaster to find and deploy resources that facilitate effective and just recovery. The gains they

have made have directly combated pre-existing and disaster-created iterations of structural

violence, by drawing focus to issues of safety, building relationships between neighborhood

residents, and recruiting funds for a new school and, in the future, a new and expanded library.

Yet Broadmoor is also an example of a neighborhood all but abandoned by government.

The resources freed by FEMA Director Michael Brown's directive to do what had to be done

regardless of rules or restrictions, if there were any, never trickled down to the Broadmoor

Improvement Association. Like other neighborhoods throughout the city, Broadmoor received

little help—resources, funds, or expertise—from government officials and not until long after the

storm did the city government reach out to partner with the Improvement Association or the

Development Corporation. Moreover, there has been no indication that the city has sought to

replicate Broadmoor's model, even though doing so would be in the city's best interest, as

Broadmoor's work has if anything shifted financial and organizational burdens away from the

government. Did Broadmoor work because residents were convinced that the city no longer

wanted them? Can the do-it-yourself spirit that continues to define the Improvement Association

and their constant stream of volunteers be fostered alongside government assistance and affective
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city-wide planning, or only in opposition to perceived abandonment by the powers that be?

These questions remain to be answered. It is clear, however, that the ability to locate, recruit, and

distribute physical and financial assets in the best interest of affected communities is a much-

needed skill, one that should be able to be fostered in the contexts of vulnerability mitigation and

disaster events, and facilitated by the government by making public resources easily understood

and readily accessible.

“And when it is done, the people will say we did it ourselves”

The Holly Grove neighborhood lies just west of Mid-City, on the edge of Orleans Parish.

The entire neighborhood sits at or below sea level, which means that as the storm surge that

preceded Katrina raised the water level in Lake Pontchartrain and the city's numerous drainage

canals, the entire community was put at risk. Like in Broadmoor, every building in the

neighborhood flooded; the worst received eight feet of water (see Figure 7.1). Also like

Broadmoor, Holly Grove has a historic and respected community development organization that

stepped in to facilitate recovery after the storm. In 1998, when Kevin Brown took the position of

Executive Director of the Trinity Christian Community (TCC), he replaced the only other

director the organization has ever had: his father. Brown, against orders from the National Guard,

returned to Holly Grove before the waters had receded. He immediately started planning the

recovery of his neighborhood, and the TCC (which had for decades worked with families in the

neighborhood) immediately became a fundamental part of the neighborhood's recovery. In fact,

according to Brown, since Katrina the TCC remains the only institutional actor of any

significance in Holly Grove:

We’ve done our own housing. … We put our own street signs up all over neighborhood.
We took the signs off the neutral grounds and cut them up and repainted them with
volunteers and pasted them up all over the place … so that insurance adjusters could find
their way around and contractors could find their way around. As a result our
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neighborhood came back faster than many other neighborhoods…. We built new homes;
we rehabbed old homes. We brought thousands and thousands of volunteers in. The very
first thing we did was … distribute relief supplies. We made our own showers, they were
cold showers granted, but we made our own showers so that the volunteer teams could
come stay in [the TCC] building.… They slept in the cold; there was no power; they took
cold showers downstairs [and] had their meals underneath the tent; we had to go get ice
very day to keep the food cold [and] we cooked on propane stoves. We did whatever it
took to bring back this neighborhood.

Trinity Christian Community began its effort to serve its community's post-disaster needs the

moment Brown snuck back into the city to evaluate the damage. Its staff continues to this day to

address housing reconstruction and legal advocacy issues, run after-school programs and

leadership development summer camps, and bring seventy AmeriCorps members to work in the

city every year. The TCC is leading the fight to rebuild Holly Grove both physically and

culturally. The organization makes just reconstruction a reality, performing tasks necessary for

the rebirth of the community (many of which fall well within the traditional purview of the

government) in partnership with its residents and ex-residents.

Holly Grove is lucky to have Kevin Brown. He acts as a strong leader and facilitator of

community empowerment and activism, and splits his time between running his organization and

“fly[ing] all over the country begging for money. Trying to make hay while the sun shines, you

know?” As a former psychotherapist, Brown understands what crisis does to individuals and

communities. As a long-time organizer and child of the neighborhood, he understands what crisis

meant for Holly Grove. “People come in from the outside and call us backwards,” he says, but

the neighborhood “trust[s] us on a level that they wouldn't trust somebody coming in from the

outside.” This trust is important, and how leaders use that trust plays significantly into the

success of just response work. Where members of the community are occupied with looking for

part-time employment in the city they were evacuated to, sorting through moldy closets in search

of family memories, or the simple act of surviving wherever they are, responsibility for the
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community is automatically turned over to whoever will take it. Thus it is crucial that

neighborhood leaders claim that responsibility with integrity.

The TCC has continued to offer the services it always has, but since the storm it has

grown immensely. Now, the TCC and two organizations it has incubated since Katrina (a

Community Development Corporation and a Neighborhood Association) have instituted a block

captain program to keep track of and get input from residents, started an education committee

that continues to advocate for the reconstruction of the neighborhood's school, and continues to

work to increase commerce and decrease crime in the neighborhood. What is happening in Holly

Grove is truly an emergence of many leaders and dispersion of agency, but it would not have

been nearly so successful without Kevin Brown. When we spoke, Brown paraphrased for me the

last line of the Tao Te Ching's seventeenth chapter, which considers the qualities of a good

leader: “and when it is over, the people will say 'we did it ourselves.'”

In Brown's words, although Holly Grove residents were victims of a structural violent

reconstruction process, they found ways to rebuild themselves: “the city failed my neighborhood.

And it continues to fail my neighborhood, both actively and passively. Despite that fact, we have

formed our own kind of shadow government and are making this neighborhood work.” All

governments, even shadow governments, require leaders. Agencies attempting to govern with no

official status especially need strong leaders who can garner respect and accomplish tasks with

little to no resources. In Broadmoor, Graboyes says that “[local] leadership is key. … Having

people from the community leading the process is how it stays credible.” Brown himself notes

that “every successful neighborhood that came back had a neighborhood champion.” Michael

Robinson, an organizer with Jericho Road Housing Services in the Central City neighborhood,

agrees: “If you look at neighborhoods that have a decent amount of leadership, they were able to
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get some things done. If you don’t have … quality leadership, I don’t care how much money you

throw at the situation. It’s not getting done.” Indeed, especially when resources are hard to track

down and rapid decisions must be made in the best interest of a community too busy surviving to

freely give input, strong and empathetic leadership is key to understanding community needs,

helping generate a vision for the future, and making hard choices around reconstruction, all

necessary to combat structural violence and effectively seek justice. This is true on all levels,

from the neighborhood to upper echelons of the federal government.

The Pariah's Story

Many New Orleans community leaders, residents, and authors place a very heavy portion

of blame for disaster preparedness and response failures on Mayor Nagin and the city

government. Much of this criticism is warranted. But the city faced its own set of debilitating

challenges that deserve investigation as well. In Katrina's aftermath, local officials often had

their hands tied by bureaucratic realities that made it impossible to serve their citizenry. What

stood in their way? Is it possible to make changes to government to enable them to better act in

times of crises?

The vast majority of a city government's income comes from locally levied taxes. New

Orleans, like most American cities, could not afford to maintain much of a surplus even before

the storm: its twenty million dollar a month payroll was essentially financed month-to-month

(Hauser 2005). “The city didn't really have any money,” the city's Deputy Chief Administrative

Officer Cynthia Sylvain-Lear put simply. The mayor's ability to govern, then, was decimated

after the hurricane both by the evacuation and diaspora of most of his workforce, and the

disappearance of his tax base. Retired Marine Corps Colonel Jerry Sneed, the Director of the

city's Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness, said that because of their
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inability to collect taxes on transactions that were no longer occurring, “the longer we wait[ed] to

get our citizens back, the harder it [was] to get the community back up and running.” Especially

hard-hit were the restaurant, retail, and tourist sectors, the mainstays of local tax generation.

Days after the storm, as political leaders saw the need for government services expand

before their eyes, the city of New Orleans laid off half its 6,000 employees because it could no

longer afford them. This catch-22 was made worse by one provision of the Stafford Act, the

federal law that governs disaster management: the law stipulates that federal assistance funds can

only be used for emergency-related overtime pay, not regular salaries (Hauser 2005). Without the

income to afford even baseline salaries, the city was forced to slim down. With half their usual

staff, the city simply did not have the resources to make the infrastructural repairs necessary to

open New Orleans for business once again. Their inability to allow taxable markets to reopen in

the city, however, denied them the income needed to make the repairs, creating a self-reinforcing

cycle that prolonged the recovery process.

The resources the city did find were dedicated to projects crucial to the functioning of

government but not highly prioritized by neighborhood groups or individuals rebuilding, giving

the city the appearance that they were doing little. Sylvain-Lear notes that “The [City] Council

approved us moving money from wherever we could find it to get started with [rebuilding our]

criminal justice [infrastructure]. … People … said, 'well, why'd you start with [those]

building[s]?' [But] you've got to be able to have jury trials,” especially if fraudulent contractors

are ever to be to be held accountable. The city's first priority, along with making emergency

repairs to breached floodwalls, reinforcing eroded levees, and pumping water out of flooded

areas, was public safety, a cost-intensive endeavor that demanded most of the city's focus.

Additionally, the city’s tools of governance were completely destroyed. Sylvain-Lear

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explains the difficulties the city government had responding in a city with no running water,

electricity, or fuel:

A few days [after the storm] we were back in the Hyatt [Hotel, across the street from City
Hall]. And so, no heat, no water, no much of anything, we turned the ballrooms into
offices. Military was in there, disaster groups were in there. How they stood up all of the
computers, I had no idea, but they did it within days. So a lot of the craziness we’re
talking about now, [people] had to remember what had to happen in a short period of
time. … We had to buy three hundred portolets [portable toilets], because you have to
think about the criticals!

City employees worked tirelessly to restore city services and their own infrastructure as quickly

and efficiently as possible. As of January 2010, the city is still operating with only two thirds of

its pre-Katrina staff, and the list of incomplete or yet-to-be-tackled civic and infrastructural

reconstruction projects remains long. Yet many city buildings have been completed. Was the city

wrong to prioritize the reconstruction of the criminal justice system? Should Nagin have

allocated more early funds towards projects that directly aided community recovery, or was he

right to dedicate substantial resources towards the restoration of government functionality? These

are questions that remain unanswered.

The government's ability to practice just reconstruction by improving city infrastructure

was heavily constrained by restrictive FEMA funding regulations and the city's own insurance

woes. According to the Chief Administrative Office, while the city normally completed $50

million of capital projects each year, early estimates assigned a $400 million price tag to post-

disaster reconstruction of city buildings alone. While some of the necessary funds would come

from insurance payouts, it would have been financially impossible for the city to fully insure all

their buildings. Sylvain-Lear says, “When you do insurance on 300 buildings, you do a

reasonable level of risk. You don’t do full insurance on all 300 buildings. Well, we were

penalized for that.” More significantly, the city was especially immobilized by the way their
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insurer handled their claims. Each insured building was processed as an individual claim, with

rewards locked into the reconstruction or replacement of that property. The city, then, received

insurance funds that partially funded a percentage of every insured building but left each

potential project with a major funding gap, instead of funding the total reconstruction of a

percentage of buildings, which would have allowed the city to start rebuilding their most

important facilities sooner.

The second major source of capital funding for infrastructure projects, FEMA grants, had

many conditions of their own. One stipulation actually punished the city for using the destruction

as an opportunity to improve infrastructure. Chief Administrative Officer Dr. Brenda Hatfield,

Sylvain-Lear, and Sneed were all interviewed simultaneously. An excerpt from that conversation

explains this regulation and the city's dilemma:

Sylvain-Lear: FEMA allows us to do upgrades based on codes and standards. What

FEMA will call an improved project, though, is … if we put in too many bells and
whistles that didn’t exist before. [If that is the case,] FEMA will, instead of replacing the
square footages … cap the amount of money that we could receive…. So we’re very
careful in some of the upgrades or even the expansions that we do because we don’t have
any [extra] money on the side. If they cap [their contribution], where do we find the
money to add to it?

Cohen-Price: So … you can make it a little bit better, but if you make it too much better
the FEMA money is gone?

Sylvain-Leer: That's right. They limit the amount of money you get. Right now if I had a
fire station and I build another fire station [just like the old one] … whatever the new cost
of the fire station [FEMA] will bill. Whatever that is. But if I had a fire station and I want
a new fire station and it’s 20,000 more square feet than the other one, then they’ll say,
“well, on paper we estimate that that is only going to cost you 2.5 million.” If I hadn’t
improved it and it cost 3 million, they would pay the 3 [million]. But if I say I’m going to
improve it, they cap it at 2.5 [million], if it’s really at 3 [million] it’s on me. So we are

Sneed: One way to look at it is if the city owns twenty dump trucks and you lost all
twenty dump trucks, FEMA gives you, not new dump trucks, [but] twenty old dump
trucks even though you only have enough people to drive three of the dump trucks. So
[we can't] get three new dump trucks, which we really need; FEMA would say no we
need to give you twenty old ones. … [For example,] we were in the process of getting a
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new [shortwave emergency services] radio system [before the storm]. We lost radios out
the gazoo. Well [FEMA] wanted to replace them with the old, antiquated radios that our
police, fire, EMS used [previously]. They wanted to replace a system that we were
getting rid of, but had not gotten rid of it completely. … [We] finally convinced FEMA
why would you go backwards? Move forward to the new radio system. So we finally won
that one.

Hatfield: The fire engines! There were older ones, and they were looking for used, old
fire engines because they did not want to give us—

Sneed: Because [FEMA told us that we] could not buy the new ones!

Hatfield: The same with buses.

Sylvain-Lear: Ambulances, same way.

Hatfield: I mean, crazy rules! There’s a whole need to restructure this whole federal
emergency management administration system. And the Stafford Act itself.

So the city, too, like residents and community groups, was denied easy access to resources that

would have allowed them to act flexibly and rapidly in the face of immense structural problems

caused by (and uncovered by) Katrina. This is, in a phrase, one more form of structural violence:

the greater federal disaster relief structure in which cities act has limitations that profoundly

affect the city’s ability to take care of its citizens. To echo Dr. Hatfield, changes must be made to

this system to give local leaders the freedom—and the money—they need to effectively respond

and rebuild. However, in light of New Orleans' history of government corruption, it is clear why

the federal government may be averse to making such changes.

Community-Driven Visions and Diversity: Oil and Water?

In January, 2010, the city's new master plan received final approval from the Planning

Commission and headed to the City Council. Approved with revisions in August 2010, the

master plan is a first in a city that historically “doesn't believe in planning,” according to

Professor of Environmental Planning and Hazard Mitigation at the University of New Orleans

Dr. Erthea Nance (Eggler 2010 [i, ii]). While it is the city’s first plan, it was not the first attempt.
Cohen-Price 95

A master plan had been in the works since the early 1990s, says Executive Director of the City

Planning Commission Yolanda Rodriguez. She explains that a decade after starting the master

plan process, the document remained incomplete, unfocused, and not a priority:

Prior to Katrina we had a series of thirteen elements that the master plan was divided
into. The city's approach at that time was to look at them as mini-studies. … Right after
Katrina, one of the things that the commissioners did was that they looked at the master
plan in progress and said at this pace, we're never going to finish. … We were looking at
a land use plan that was done in 1999.

The new plan, one visionary, cohesive document as opposed to overlapping “mini-studies,” is

married to a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance that carries the force of law; in other words, if

the plan is approved, the city will have the legal muscle needed to keep development in line with

the document. This guiding statement, however, comes five years into a not particularly cohesive

or well-guided recovery effort. What took so long? Does the plan truly represent the needs and

visions of New Orleans residents?

After Katrina, New Orleans went through four distinct attempts at planning a cohesive

recovery effort before it stumbled upon one that most could agree upon, although it too was met

with criticism. 37 The first plan was published before the end of 2005 at the behest of Mayor

Nagin by a group of experts christened the Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) Commission. As

discussed on previous pages, the most controversial aspect of the BNOB plan—and perhaps the

single biggest controversy of post-Katrina planning—came out of the Land Use Subcommittee,

which worked with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to create a new land use vision for the city.

ULI called for a prioritization of reconstruction efforts in areas less heavily damaged by

flooding, essentially shrinking the city's footprint to areas more easy to repair and less vulnerable

The Master Plan is not a Recovery Plan. For a description of each plan and links to the original recovery
planning documents, visit The plan not discussed here is the FEMA ESF-14 plan,
published with little fanfare one year after Katrina and, although holistic, received little attention.
Cohen-Price 96

to future storms, at least until more residents moved back. 38

ULI’s initial recommendations including delaying infrastructure investment and even a

potential moratorium on private building permits in neighborhoods of the lowest elevation:

Broadmoor, St. Roch, much of New Orleans East, Gentilly, and the Lower Ninth Ward. Some of

these neighborhoods, after further study, would be converted into green space that would serve

simultaneously as parkland and a natural storm drain (Carr 2005, Russell 2006). Although the

BNOB authors eventually scaled back their recommendations (the final draft included much

greyer wording and allows any landowner to rebuild on their land if they see fit), the damage had

already been done. 39 The interpretation that the Mayor wanted to turn some of the poorest and

blackest neighborhoods into drainage basins quickly spread distrust of the plan. Nathan

Rothstein, a young activist who moved to New Orleans soon after Katrina, explains the anger

that arose:

The Urban Land Institute … came up with a plan that basically put green dots in areas
that were between eight and fifteen feet below sea level. … They made the mistake of not
really explaining what those green dots meant. When there’s confusion, people assume
the worst because of how much mistrust we have already. So, the green dots were
Broadmoor, the Lower Ninth Ward, and New Orleans East, and so, the residents saw
these green dots in their neighborhood and were like, “What … is going on? Why are you
going to turn my neighborhood into a park?”

In months after the storm, only approximately 75,000 of the 485,000 pre-Katrina residents had returned to New
Orleans (Wallace, Roberts, and Todd 2006: Figure 11). Estimates place the immediate disaster-related loss of
residents at 300,000 and jobs at 160,000 (Carr 2005).
After opposition from residents and the Mayor, such recommendations were scaled back severely before the final
draft of BNOB was released in early 2006 (Donze 2005). Figure 7.2, from that final draft, was accompanied with
the text:

We have identified a number of areas, shown by dashed circles, within which there is potential for future
parkland. The circles are large to indicate that we have not identified properties; those will be determined
with citizen involvement in a process described later. The new parks should perform many functions: they
provide recreation and open space, they cool the land, they produce oxygen, and they act as part of the city-
wide storm water protection and management system. (Wallace, Roberts & Todd 2006: 9)

It must be noted that due to controversy about the BNOB plan, including allegations that New Orleans residents
were asked for far too little input, it was never implemented. The plan was later supplanted by the Unified New
Orleans Plan. See Carr 2005, Dozne 2005, and Russell 2006. See also and .
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Neither the smaller footprint nor the urban drainage plan sat well with city residents or the New

Orleans diaspora still scattered around the country. Also damaging to BNOB, as well as the plan

that followed, known as the Lambert plan, was the perception of planners and imported

consulting experts as outsiders. Indeed, the Urban Land Institute is a Washington, D.C.-based

firm (Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC, the primary author of the BNOB plan, is based in

Philadelphia) and Paul Lambert, the namesake of the Lambert Plan, runs a consultancy in Miami.

Those designing new visions for the city, in Kevin Brown's words, “call[ed] us backwards”

because they did not understand New Orleans.

The Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), published in 2007, succeeded where previous

plans had not by correcting the expert-outsider perception, seeking community input, and

creating a vision that at least a majority of New Orleanians could support. UNOP would later go

on to play a key role in the development of the new Master Plan. Graboyes mentions remarkable

applications of technology used to test concepts and gather ideas from the diaspora:

The Community Congresses that they did in four different cities with displaced New
Orleans folks: America Speaks is the group that they contracted to do it. … So it’s all
technology, everyone’s got their own little voting device and they put stuff up on the
projector and people speak and talk about it and you get instant polling results from the
people talking about it across three or four cities about how they felt, everything was
simultaneously linked up: really cool stuff.

Yet many neighborhood groups and activists took issue with the process. Low turnout was

reported at the community congresses held around the country for residents who had not been

able to return home (Russell 2006). Rothstein describes similar meetings held in the city:

It was supposed to be a real neighborhood driven plan. The first meeting [in] July 2006
… was supposed to be open to the public but they did it in a room that could only hold
200 people and 500 people showed up, there were too many people there. So, from the
beginning the process was flawed. … Citizens vote[d] on which planner they wanted …
[but] the organizers of the plan didn’t really count votes, they were about 2 months late in
actually picking the planner…. [So] the citizen input really had no basis.
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Despite the controversy, UNOP was completed sixteen months after the floodwaters receded.

Both Graboyes, case manager for the Broadmoor Development Corporation, and Brown,

Executive Director of the Trinity Christian Community in Holly Grove, note that more organized

neighborhoods had by then already abandoned the city planning process, developed their own

plans, and started building. Brown comments, “While they were planning, we were rebuilding.”

Says Graboyes, “so the plan comes up but meanwhile Broadmoor is a year into implementation

… and we’re [already] rolling really with this sort of cavalier go it ourselves mentality because

Broadmoor had already been counted out.” With capable neighborhoods already invested in their

own recovery processes, the legitimacy of UNOP was always uncertain at best.

As significant as arriving late to the scene, UNOP did not always genuinely seek the

input of potential community partners. Rothstein notes that once “the plan was set…every week

planners would meet with neighborhood groups.” Brown tells of his experience with those


The city hired their quote-unquote experts. In our case it was a man named Luke, who
was an architect. We said to Luke, “We have done our own planning charrette. We can
show you exactly what we want in our neighborhood.” Luke said, “Shut up. Leave it to
the experts.” Now what Luke should have said … [was] “Oh My God, that’s great! Let’s
sit down together and talk about it.” Now that’s the [kind of] planning that went on.

Such interactions rapidly debilitate just disaster response work: it makes little sense for two

individuals, both trying to rebuild the same city, to fight against each other instead of partner

with each other to promote recovery. Humility, then, and constantly remembering that successful

recovery is far more important than which plan or leader gets the credit for it, is the key to using

disaster response work to find justice. Brown ended our interview by telling me:

So we had a city planning process. Big freaking deal. Who are your leaders? What have
they done? How can we have this wealth? How can we empower these neighborhoods?
What can we do to make the neighborhoods feel like they own their own neighborhood?
We [in Holly Grove] don’t even own our own neighborhood. We can’t open up our own
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school, we can’t get our senior center back up and running, we can’t put up our own bus
stop. Empower the neighborhoods. There’s a great group of people back here that are
doing great stuff. Help them do it. … There are some real heroes in this city…. They're in
the neighborhoods; they're the guys who made things happen. They're amazing people
who have done it with very little ego, just a love for the people.

Much like this work would be incomplete without an application to real response scenarios, post-

disaster planning will never work unless it is truly done in the context of (and therefore in

partnership with) the communities it is trying to rebuild.

Lessons from New Orleans

The windy road of disaster response and reconstruction in New Orleans has been rife

with obstacles and mirages, false senses of simplicity or hopes of quick recovery. The four topics

investigated here—access to resources, local leadership, the political reality in which local

governments operate, and difficulties with collecting community input—are only a few of the

many intricacies of New Orleans’ complicated path to recovery. Nearly five years later, as many

streets in New Orleans remain potholed, and flood lines and search and rescue markings are still

visible on the outside of houses across the city, it is clear that work in New Orleans will not be

complete for quite some time. Much like Katrina made blatantly visible many of New Orleans'

latent problems, the first half-decade of New Orleans' recovery has uncovered many truths about

disaster response work. Just as the city's stakeholders had and still have a profound opportunity

to address those newly-manifested afflictions, so too does the disaster response community have

a remarkable chance to learn from the success and failures of the New Orleans recovery process.

The utilization of both opportunities—making changes in New Orleans and to the greater

disaster relief and reconstruction agenda, would be amazing steps forward for justice.
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Chapter 8: Anywhere, USA

“It’s not uncommon for tornadoes in the Midwest to tear up a small rural town, and you usually get back a few metal
buildings and some basic stuff, and that’s as far as it goes. But it didn’t happen here that way. … A tornado just came
through … and it did 3.7 million dollars worth of improvement.”

Bob Wetmore
Executive Director
Kiowa County Chamber of Commerce
Kiowa County Economic Development Corporation

Three months after Katrina, Chris Rose, the New Orleans journalist and author known by

many as the city's unofficial Poet Laureate, lamented the slow pace of reconstruction efforts in

his city: “This is not just Anywhere USA we're talking about. This is New Orleans” (Rose 2007:

98). One and a half years later, a disaster of similar proportion struck a town that was, to nearly

everyone in the country except its residents, Anywhere, USA. Greensburg, a community of 1,500

one hundred miles west of Wichita in southwestern Kansas, was struck by the largest tornado

ever to directly hit an American town on May 4th, 2007 (Greensburg 2008). The tornado reached

Greensburg at 9:45 in the evening, then quickly moved north, following Main Street through the

city. Most residents emerged from tornado shelters and basements to find their community

completely in ruin: ninety-five percent of the town's structures, over 1,000 homes and

businesses, and all but one municipal building were destroyed. Ten Greensburg residents, as well

as two residents from surrounding towns, were killed. Bob Dixson, elected Mayor in 2008,

recalls that after the wind stopped howling,

I stood up in my basement and turned 360 degrees and all I saw was rubble. There was no
roof, no walls, nothing left of my house. The first thing you think is, “Am I the only one
left?” Because it looked like a bomb went off. Meteorologists who’ve researched this say
[that it was] like that, because the energy in this storm was like a nuclear bomb.

Residents that were able climbed out of the wreckage of their pulverized homes and worked their

way up to Route 54, the four-lane highway that ran through the town. Ambulances rushed to
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Greensburg from nearby towns to care for victims, while Police and Fire Departments began

search and rescue efforts. The Red Cross opened shelters in the school gymnasiums to the west

and east of Greensburg, and a three day mandatory evacuation was ordered as state and local

officials worked to plug gas leaks, find bodies, and assess damage.

Figure 8.1: Greensburg, Immediately after Tornado

Image from

After coming to terms with the damage, the community has since embarked on a mission

never attempted on this great a scale in an American city: to rebuild their entire town as

environmentally sustainably as possible. Yet despite this achievement, essentially no significant

scholarship exists about Greensburg and its recovery. Besides for a cable television show

broadcast on the channel Planet Green, which more than one town leader derided as “pure

Hollywood,” there are only a few articles in American and European newspapers and magazines,
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each printing a similar short story.

Although everyone recounts a slightly different version, the story of Greensburg's

remarkably organized and effective response to this disaster is best told by its citizens. While

adrenaline and stress have blurred their memories and details occasionally do not agree, their

descriptions of the physical, social, and emotional processes of disaster relief and reconstruction

are remarkably similar and overwhelmingly positive. This chapter investigates here some of the

intricacies of Greensburg's recovery.

Front Porch People

Like most rural towns, Greensburg has withered over the last few decades. The

historically biggest employment sectors, agriculture and booster stations that re-compress natural

gas traveling through pipelines across the plains, have both been revolutionized by technological

innovations that resulted in the layoffs of hundreds of employees. Ed Shoenberger, County

Historian and the keeper of town's cemetery, tells of the town's history:

I think the [population] high was around 3,000. That was pre-1900. [But] Oklahoma
opened up, the land of milk and honey, so people just left and population got down to
about 300 around the turn of the [twentieth] century. As people found out that Oklahoma
was not much better than what they left they started coming back…. And then they put
[in] these [natural gas] compressor stations … and so that was a drawing to get people
back. When [my wife and I] came here in 1972 the population was about 2,100 and there
was no place to rent, there was no place to buy. … As time went by, probably maybe the
early '80s, they started … digitizing … [the compressor stations]. And so a lot of people
had to leave. And I think before the tornado the population was about 1,500. The main
occupation was farming or farm-related. And the gas plants they were secondary.…
There’s a lot of corporate farmers around here…. Most of the local managers, they’re
conscientious and they're good farmers. But the trend is to go bigger.

The connection between the modernization of farm technology and centralization of agriculture

was noted by Daniel Wallach, the founder of a nonprofit organization created to assist in

environmentally sustainable reconstruction after the storm:

To be cost effective for a farmer, they have to own 2,000 acres of land. How many houses
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in a community can you have when each farm has 2,000 acres? Not very many. … You
know a combine? They're huge machines now; they’re $300,000 machines. You better
have a lot to farm in order to justify spending $300,000 on a tractor.

As Greensburg hemorrhaged jobs, youth lost interest in staying in town. City Administrator

Steve Hewitt, among others, noted that before the tornado “our biggest export was youth.” But

employment is only part of the puzzle; the community's communitas was withering also.

Although rural America is known for its strong networks of relationships, cohesion is declining

in small towns as well, and Greensburg was no exception. Says Dixson:

There’s a real lost sense in this country of community. … We have to become front-porch
people again. We gotta get out of our backyards and away from our TV and we gotta get
out on our front porch to where we talk to the people walking down the street, and we get
to know our neighbors. Then we can overcome a lot of our problems.

Although not all are willing to define pre-tornado Greensburg as a “dying” community,

consensus on its once-imminent decline is clear.

Structural violence as discussed in most scholarship applies to race- and class-based

inequalities; topics such as access to medical care, racial profiling by police, or test-based

schooling fall under its traditional purview. However, if we return to Galtung's original definition

of the term, that of a difference between actual and potential realizations caused by a difficult- or

impossible-to-define perpetrator, we find that structural violence has a much wider scope (see

Chapter Two). In this light, Greensburg, like the rest of rural America, has been a profound

victim of structural violence for decades. In the words of Bob Wetmore, Executive Director of

the Kiowa County Chamber of Commerce and the Kiowa County Economic Development

Corporation, “every small rural town in America has been hit by an EF5 tornado—they just don't

realize it.” The residents of Greensburg, like those of nearly every other Anytown, USA, have

been victims of Solnit's “disaster of everyday life” (2009: 3) for twenty years.
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The characteristics of Greensburg that defined its demise are similar to those facing many

inner-cities around the country and oppressed communities around the world. The town has been

hit hard by a trifecta of structural violence: a lack of employment opportunities to generate

economic success, a lack of social capital to build and maintain networks that connect people to

opportunities, and a lack of economic resources—on the part of individuals and the local

government—that disable the community's ability to generate those social and economic

opportunities from scratch. Those interviewed seem to agree that employment is the basis of

Greensburg's problems: the dearth of jobs lowered the ability of the town to collect taxes and

therefore improve infrastructure, and the out-migration of families, especially youth, to towns

and cities with more varied avenues to economic and cultural prosperity, have created the social

void that debilitates the town's ability to retain or generate jobs and social capital. Although the

problems faced by communities more typically understood as victims of structural violence tend

to have more complex roots (e.g. failures of education and criminal justice, as well as jobs) and

the damage may be more extreme (residents of Greensburg are not dying of AIDS or multi-drug-

resistant tuberculosis, as are the those written about by Farmer [2005]), the cycle is the same.

Understood as structural violence, then, the distinct issues which plagued Greensburg

before the tornado appear as nodes of the same matrix that threatens rural life around the country.

The removal of social and economic capital-generating tools, including but not limited to the

modernization of industry mentioned by Shoenberger and the changes in agriculture alluded to

by Wallach, is the driving force behind the community's decline, In short, says Shoenberger,

Greensburg was literally and figuratively “just a typical Western Kansas town that was hit hard

by Walmart”:

When [my wife and I] came in 1972, every building on Main Street had a viable business.
You could buy whatever you needed in Greensburg. And when they opened that Walmart
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[thirty miles away] in Pratt … it was very noticeable. … And then when they automated
those gas plants that just, you know, was like somebody popping your balloon; that really

The exodus of jobs spurred the downward cycle so typical of structural violence. Superintendent

Darin Headrick reports that since 1990, Greensburg had been losing a couple of families with

school-aged children every year, weakening the institution that is the “focal point” of “smaller,

rural communities.” Main Street was losing the shops and restaurants that supported the

previously thriving community and its youth, and as stores closed, residents looking for groceries

or furniture or hardware had to drive farther or settle for less, creating another incentive to leave.

If Greensburg, and its unique rural culture that has long defined the United States, was to

survive, it needed to become socially and economically sustainable. It is through this lens that

disaster recovery work in Greensburg must be understood.

Slow down and Plan

Like many towns and cities around the country, Greensburg followed no master plan

before 2007. The town, in fact, had completed a plan decades earlier that had never much been

followed and long since been forgotten. Hewitt says, “When I showed up here in 2006, the

comprehensive master plan was [from] back in 1981. And it was on a shelf—I accidentally found

it—no one knew it existed. … It was outdated. It had no reference to where the community was

going.” According to Hewitt, the city had been developing haphazardly over the years, if it had

developed at all:

Small towns get stagnant; they got what they got and they're done. Some will say, we
were so good that the school never … had a bond issue in the hundred years of the town.
Is that a proud thing? Are you proud of that? Because to me, when you do a bond issue, it
shows you’re progressive and you’re willing to pay for a better environment, a better
community, a better infrastructure: you’re willing to pay for growth. [But] we never
really did a new school.
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After the tornado, then, community leaders recognized the opportunity to reverse stagnation and

replace many aspects of the town's aging infrastructure. Hewitt, as well as councilman-turned-

mayor John Janssen and Dixson, the current mayor, all spoke to this opportunity. 40 They all

recognized as well the need to redevelop in an organized fashion. Hewitt continues:

Without [a master plan], you’re arbitrarily just trying to shoot from the hip, we knew that.
So right after the storm, I knew instantly that we had to have some detailed planning. All
these neat ideas that people had! And I had a meeting with [Council President] John
Janssen and [Mayor] Lonnie McCollum and myself out on the courthouse parking lot,
that’s kinda where everything was staged at, the disaster relief area. And I told both of
them, they both told me the same thing, it was the same thing that came out of
everybody’s mouth: everything we didn’t like and everything we wanted to do, we could
do now.

Town leaders were aware, then, that to reverse Greensburg's shrinking trend, the city needed to

not only rebuild but focus rebuilding to a central vision, one that would attract business and

retain youth.

Developing that vision immediately after the tornado proved difficult for two reasons.

First, reports Janssen, “there was nobody here to make consensus with”: with residents scattered

around the county and state, getting consistent yet rapid community feedback was difficult.

Second, some town residents thought poorly of taking time to plan. In fact, as is typical of

victims of catastrophic disasters, it is likely that they did not think much at all (Ripley 2008).

Janssen explains that for many residents the need to return to the comfort of home was blinding.

This was true on an individual level:

Basically … people were in shock; they were not making good choices. There was a lot
of money handed to contractors who said “I can get you back in a house in six weeks.”
And … when they got it half done [they] left with the check. So it was people not making
good choices and it wasn’t because they were stupid it was because they literally were in
shock. … The tornado was on a Friday and on that Tuesday there were people already in

When the tornado hit, Lonnie McCollum was mayor of Greensburg, and John Janssen was the President of the
City Council. Within one month of the tornado, the aging McCollum resigned, and Janssen became Mayor.
Almost one year later, on April 1st, 2008, Bob Dixson beat Janssen in the first mayoral election after the storm.
Cohen-Price 107

Miles, Kansas ordering modular homes. … And now they're unhappy, some of them,
because they took them from the list [of homes] that hadn’t been sold and it didn’t have
this that they really kinda wanted, it didn't have that that they really kinda wanted, but [at
least] they had a house. (Janssen)

It was also true on a community level:

You know the initial pressure in this town was to put it right back just as it was. I told
them I thought that was a really wonderful idea, but are you sure you want plywood for
all the windows on Main street? Because it was just gonna continue to implode if you
build it back just the way it was before. You got nothing here to make it go. You gotta do
something different if you’re gonna make it grow. (Janssen)

In such a rush to come home, some residents agitated against the planning processes on which

Hewitt, McCollum, and Janssen began to embark. In fact, some of the forcefulness which with

the leaders motivated people to think ahead eventually cost Janssen his job: “[Steve Hewitt and

I] played good cop-bad cop and did a pretty good job of it, [and] I figured it was a short-term

deal because we made too many hard decisions.” Indeed, building consensus in a diasporatic

community of struggling survivors proved to be no easy or popular task, and Janssen lost he

reelection bid on April 1st, 2008.

Oops! I Guess that Settles It

Before the tornado, Daniel Wallach and his wife moved to Kiowa County from

California. He spoke to me about creating the “collective will of the community” that was

needed to rebuild Greensburg the right way:

In order to motivate people to overcome the inertia or the fear or the risk of change
you’ve gotta make it either so uncomfortable that they don’t want to stay where they are
or inspire them to move beyond where they are. I prefer the school of inspiration, and I
think it is how we’re wired and that if you honor people’s intelligence and tap into their
hearts they will choose the right thing—what’s best for them and what’s best for the

It is safe to say, however, that an inspirational building of will is not what started Greensburg

down its unusual recovery path. Although rebuilding sustainably, or “putting the 'green' back in
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Greensburg,” eventually became a rallying cry for town residents, the course first plotted was

much less calculated—and founded in substantially less community input—than many perceive.

In fact, the commitment to rebuild sustainably was rushed and autocratic, based on a few leaders'

visions of how Greensburg could remain viable and reverse its own decline. Building the

collective will of the community was the next step. Hewitt recalls:

I remember us talking about smart growth and smart decisions. I don’t know if we
necessarily used the word sustainable, but I know we were talking about sustainable
decisions. And not in the word of green rather, but the word of making sure that
everything we do connects and works together, and the community gets involved. The
connectivity of how this entire community is going to come back has got to be mapped
out in a much more detailed, sustainable way. … I remember me and Lonnie [McCollum]
and the superintendent, [and the] county commissioner [all met,] and the Governor came
down. It was probably a week into the storm. … [The Governor] asked me, “Steve, can
you line out, what’s the first thing you're gonna do?” And I started telling her … and she
said, “you guys are talking about building green.” … And I said, hey, we’re just going to
build as smart as we can build. And if that’s green then that’s green.

At this point, memories differ. Hewitt claims that soon after that conversation, Governor

Kathleen Sebelius announced at a press conference the town's commitment to “building green.”

Janssen reports that McCollum, who was at that point still the mayor, made the announcement.

Either way, all parties were caught off-guard by the leap of faith. Hewitt recalled his surprise at

the press conference: “And then you go okay, whoa, you need to figure out exactly what she just

said and what did that mean?” Says Janssen, “[That] kinda locked us into it, because then

everyone wanted to know, 'well what are you going to do?' And we started the process from


Daniel Wallach played a fundamental role in the building of that collective will. In

Janssen's words, “he really did the backward consensus,” getting hesitant residents on board with

the advantages of green building, individually and as a community. Wallach and his wife wrote a

concept paper about the potential for a sustainable rebirth of Greensburg, and handed it to
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Janssen, Hewitt, and McCollum a few days after the storm. At community meetings about the

recovery process and informally with individuals and families, Wallach began talking about what

Greensburg could look like and listening for the visions of neighbors:

We went around talking to people and said “what are your concerns?” [We] tapped into
what would motivate them, and what motivated them was keeping future generations in
the community, was the community not dying. … So it was about listening, doing a lot of
listening initially, what are their unique desires, challenges, opportunities and then help
craft a vision…. You’ve gotta give people pictures, we think in pictures, you gotta give
people pictures of what is possible. And that is a lot of what I did early on, was paint
pictures for people. You … can talk about the problems and the challenges and you build
the hope and the inspiration by showing [people] what’s possible.

He found that the residents of Greensburg were motivated by “keeping future generations in the

community [and] the community not dying”: in a word, people wanted their community to be

sustainable. In the words of Bob Wetmore, Executive Director of the Kiowa County Chamber of

Commerce and the Kiowa County Economic Development Corporation, “This decision will be

for the future, for our children and grandchildren. That’s the cool thing. They made a decision

here that’s for 100 years from now. For tomorrow.”

The image of a flourishing twenty-first century Greensburg was promulgated by Wallach,

McCullum, Hewitt, Janssen, and later Dixson, among others, to achieve buy-in for the

commitment to environmental sustainability from the rest of the community. Wallach founded

Greensburg Greentown, a nonprofit organization tasked with connecting homeowners and

builders with environmentally and economically efficient products, expert resources, and

educational programs. It was not easy: Wallach recalls McCollum, when he was still mayor,

proclaiming, “The Golden Goose is crapping eggs here, and they don't even see it!” The

leadership, though, did successfully convince many residents that environmentally sustainable

planning would lead to an economically and socially sustainable town. And, for a number of

reasons, it already has:

Cohen-Price 110

• First, going green brought attention and money to Greensburg and kept it there, a

priceless asset in a world where, according to Chuck Banks, “disasters have a very short

attention span.” Although more funding sources were made available and accessible to

both the residents and government of Greensburg than of New Orleans, they still faced

similar funding gaps: insurance payouts and government assistance together by statute

does not cover the entire cost of reconstruction. 41 So the environmental sustainability

concept recruited and maintained the attention of the media and donations from

corporations looking to bolster their public image long after the tornado. Wallach

explains that “this was one of my primary lines early on, [saying that] if people are able

to buy into this concept in [our] community, it will bring resources to the community that

otherwise wouldn't have be coming in.”

• Second, non-profit organizations, companies, and government agencies whose missions

involve environmental sustainability paid special attention to Greensburg. In the words of

Dixson, “we're a living laboratory.” Wallach reports that in 2008, toilet manufacturer

Caroma USA donated 400 dual-flush low-flow toilets to the town, giving rebuilding

residents one less item to purchase and helping them to save money on utilities. The 400

toilets save Greensburg an aggregate of more than two million gallons of water a year.

Furthermore, such donations create a positive cycle of environmentalism and economic

sustainability, as conservation becomes an advertising tool that brings additional attention

and resources to the town. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a

Greensburg Superintendent Headrick explains that federal assistance would cover a maximum of 85% of what
insurance does not cover, leaving a potentially sizeable funding gap, especially on large municipal projects. One
early estimate for the school's reconstruction looked like this (FEMA 2007: 72):
2-Story School Campus: $24,000,000
Insurance Proceeds: ($16,075,000)
FEMA Public Assistance: ($3,275,000)
Funding Gap: $4,650,000
Cohen-Price 111

division of the United States Department of Energy, trained residents in numerous

energy- and money-saving building and living techniques, and connected them with other

environmentally sustainable resources. These are only two of numerous examples.

• Third, green building saves money: although many environmentally innovative building

solutions cost more to install, they tend to pay themselves back in lower electricity,

heating, and water bills later. In Janssen's words, “They need to understand that if I put in

a better grade of window, that in three years time it will pay for the window and then

after that it’s going in my pocket. And that was the way we did the [NREL] lessons.” This

is true for tank-less water heaters, better insulation, low-flow water heads, and dual-flush

toilets, among others. Insulated Concrete Form (ICF), a replacement for insulated wood-

framed outer walls, has been especially popular in Greensburg (see page 70). The blocks

cost more per square foot, but save enough energy that smaller, cheaper heating and

cooling devices and lower monthly energy costs quickly make up the up-front difference

(ICFA n.d.).

• Fourth, environmental sustainability can also be a vulnerability reducer, protecting

communities from future tornadoes, storms, and floods. In Greensburg, the most

prominent example of this is ICF block buildings, which can withstand winds over one

hundred miles per hour, far more than wood-frame homes, and are more fire- and

moisture- resistant (ICFA n.d.).

Putting the “green” back in Greensburg, then, was at first much more about saving money than it

ever was about environmentalism. Wallach notes, “Human beings are motivated by self interest;

there’s no way around it. But self-interest can be very altruistic, and everything needs to be

tailored to that.” But it is clear that these actions contribute both to economic and environmental
Cohen-Price 112

sustainability. In this way, Greensburg's environmentally conscious choices have combated

structural violence simply by reversing the town's pre-tornado dying trend. Headrick notes that

“it's [not] fair to evaluate the recovery of the community even yet,” but the town is already

getting younger and livelier, according to Wetmore, and as the hospital, school, Main Street

streetscape (which includes a not-for-profit strip mall and business incubator), all huge boons for

families and businesses alike, have been recently completed. 42

Figure 8.2: Greensburg, January 2010

Author’s Photograph

Sustainability of a Different Variety

While there has been some conflict about environmentally sustainably building, a large

The hospital, which expects to receive a LEED certification by the United States Green Building Council, was
completed in February, 2010. The school, which unifies Kindergarten through twelfth grades in one building,
expects a LEED Platinum certification, has opened for the 2010-2011 school year. The strip mall, officially the
Kiowa County United building, had already rented out all nine retail spaces in the building when I interviewed
Bob Wetmore in January, 2010, and was nearing completion. It has since opened. The business incubator,
completed April 26th, 2009, has already been certified LEED Platinum. See,
the US Green Building Council's project list (
and Anderson 2009. See also
Cohen-Price 113

number of residents support it both with words and actions. The Greensburg city council passed

a resolution requiring that all municipal buildings be designed to achieve the United States Green

Building Council's LEED Platinum certification, and a number of private companies have

invested heavily in environmental sustainability, including a LEED bank, car dealership, and

John Deere retailer. 43 Some residents have rebuilt without thought to green building methods or

products, and others who had little interest in what Hewitt calls “a new chapter in Greensburg's

history” have moved away. However, Hewitt estimates that about 250 houses have been built

since the tornado, and even though there is no mandate that residents do so, Wallach reports that

one hundred of them are forty-two percent more energy efficient than code requires, a

substantially greater percentage than he or NREL had hoped for.

Perhaps more significantly, though, the dubious early support for change based

specifically on the expected economic savings or potential to revive the community that building

sustainably offered seems to be giving way to a more holistic environmentalism. Wallach notes,

“when you see a poll in an election where seventy percent vote for something, that’s a landslide,

[and] I’d say we’re somewhere between sixty and seventy percent in favor of the green

initiative,” and Hewitt and Dixson both describe many of their citizens as supportive not just for

the financial savings. How does “going green” become the modus operandi of a conservative

Midwestern American town?

Environmentalism became polemic decades ago, according to Wallach, when the

As of January, 2011, four buildings in Greensburg have already received LEED certifications: the John
Deere/BTI dealership (Platinum), the Business Incubator (Platinum), the county maintenance facility (Silver),
and the 5.4.7 Arts Center (Platinum). Nine additional buildings, some complete and some still under
construction, are registered LEED projects awaiting certification. These include the City Hall, school, and
hospital, a bank, and the town’s only car dealership. See the US Green Building Council's project list for further
information ( The town’s recently rebuilt Best
Western hotel, the only Best Western in the United States with a wind turbine, will apply for EnergyStar
certification in 2011 (
us.html). See also
Cohen-Price 114

Environmental Protection Agency started regulating emissions and “red-staters didn't want to be

told what to do.” Although taking care to not jeopardize the existence of the resources on which

we rely seems fairly straight forward, notions of sustainability have remained restricted, at least

in the United States, to the liberal democratic camp. It is no surprise, then, that when he and the

political leadership of Greensburg started looking for buy-in for the focus on sustainable

building, many people balked. Wetmore opines, “You'd expect this model to be in Massachusetts,

or Sonoma [California], or San Diego, but you wouldn't expect to see it in the middle of the

heartland.” Nor did many residents, at first: Wallach recalls, “I can’t tell you how many times,

when talking to people initially, [asking] 'what do you think of this idea?' and [hearing them]

respond … 'I’m not a tree hugger.'” Two and a half years later, however, a number of community

members remarked to me, in formal interviews and informal conversations, that the consensus of

the town is that “Green is not a red versus blue issue.”

This transition, if unexpected, was logical according to Dixson: “Us being rural people

and conservationists from square one it just made sense to go this way.” The roots of Greensburg

are agricultural, notes Janssen, and “in agriculture it’s all about sustainability.” In a part of the

country where soils are bad and wells all eventually yield water too high in nitrates to be potable,

issues of sustainability and environmentalism have always carried weight, even if not in so many

words. 44 Additionally, conservation and sustainability make sense for the Midwestern value of

self-sufficiency. Notes Wallach, “Building smarter, using their wits to overcome these

challenges, not importing oil, not importing coal--that really appealed to [Greensburg's

residents'] sensibilities.” The new environmentalism of Greensburg is not the idealistic, ethics-

based environmentalism of environmental and animal rights. In fact, while Greensburg residents

Janssen speaks of Western Kansas' fragile, sandy soil; Hewitt, in discussing Greensburg's plan to build a water
treatment plan, relates that the increasing nitrate content in well water is simply “part of history with
Greensburg” that has forced the city to consistently dig new wells.
Cohen-Price 115

often use the words “stewardship,” “conservation,” and “sustainability,” as well as the broad and

poorly-defined “green,” I never once heard the term “environmentalist,” associated by many as

defining that more polemic idealistic bent. In reality, then, the new environmentalism of

Greensburg is really the old, pragmatic environmentalism of taking care of mine and ours so

crops can be harvested and water can be drawn after we are gone.

Nineteen-year-old Greensburg resident Taylor Schmidt says, “We have a chance today to

make tomorrow better.” Most Greensburg residents would agree with his words. To some, that

chance is one of financial sustainability, making life less expensive and therefore a little easier to

live. To Wetmore, it is an opportunity to light a match under economic stakeholders, bring

industry back to Greensburg, and foster ingenuity: “I don't have to worry about people down here

not thinking out of the box,” he says, “Because there is no box. The box blew away.” To Hewitt,

it is a chance to create a whole new foundation on which Greensburg can expand, from roads and

plumbing to a guiding master plan and a remarkably sound advertising tool to recruit residents

and businesses: “If you're a city manager … this is where you want to be.” To Wallach, it's about

reaching across political and ideological boundaries to foster agency: “You have everything you

need to be whole again. I can't fix you but I can go along with you for the ride.” For many,

perhaps almost all, it is about creating a town worth passing on to the next generation. To me,

Schmidt's words indicate an opportunity to challenge some of the same injustices that plague the

poor and oppressed, although I doubt many in Greensburg share that notion with me. This is the

beauty of the Greensburg vision.

Cohen-Price 116

Chapter 9: “I Wouldn't Start From Here”

“Now we are out of time … there is nothing left to do but act.”

Amanda Ripley, 2008: 138

“There are no innocent bystanders in this.”

Chris Rose 2007: 93

This is a story of opportunity.

The world is a mess, full of drastic physical, economic, and social structures that deny

many communities not only equal access to important social services like education and medical

attention but basic needs of survival. The many systems responsible for these injustices are

complex and interwoven into a deeply-rooted matrix of inequality that pervades society. These

systems, many of which are age-old, socially accepted, and maintained by no obvious

perpetrator, can be understood as structurally violent, perpetuating a feedback loop in which the

already oppressed find themselves most vulnerable to continued oppression.

Where, then, is the opportunity?

Ed Burns, the Baltimore cop-turned-schoolteacher who co-authored The Corner and the

television show The Wire, recounts a parable about a couple from the city driving through the

countryside, attempting to reach their destination. They get lost in a maze of back roads, and

every turn they make seems to take them further in the wrong direction. Finally, they see a

farmer on the side of the road, and stop to ask for directions. The man pauses and thinks for a

minute before responding. The couple had gone so far in the wrong direction that he says, “If I

were going there, I wouldn't start from here.” 45

Burns lectured at Goucher College on April 12, 2010, as a part of Goucher’s 2010 City Forum. This story was
retold in that lecture.
Cohen-Price 117

Burns was talking about public education in Baltimore, but his words apply to all systems

in fundamental need of repair. The problems with healthcare, public transportation, and many

other systems that fail to provide for the needs of the communities they supposedly serve run so

deep that the most effective change possible is often starting completely anew. Yet, despite their

failures, society relies heavily on these systems, which are often entrenched in social, economic,

and political relationships: they cannot simply be dismantled or put on hold for months or years

while they are redesigned and reconstructed. After all, a failing healthcare system serves at least

some needs of some people, more than no healthcare system at all. How, then, do we not “start

from here”? How do we make fundamental change to these devastating systems without joining

the ranks of the perpetrators of violence by denying resources to those in need?

Because disasters cause uncontrollable damage—or, at least, damage that we failed to

control—they present many profound opportunities to affect real change without causing any

more suffering than has already been caused. Moreover, an anti-structural violence agenda—in

other words, an agenda of social justice (see Galtung 1969: 183)—can lead to more effective

relief that efficiently provides remedies for disaster-borne suffering while simultaneously

addressing the long-term roots of oppression in a uniquely malleable environment. Like the

tornado that brought Dorothy to Oz, disasters force us to not “start from here.” The question then

becomes, will we sweep the covers back over the now-visible flaws, disregard the opportunity

for change, and follow the same path that got us lost in the first place? Or can we utilize disasters

to push society in new, better directions?

In Chapters Four and Five, eleven opportunity objectives have been presented – tangible

ways to usher affected communities down new paths founded in equality and peace. Using

disasters to combat structural violence consciously and directly is the ideal option, as a social
Cohen-Price 118

justice motivation will by definition prioritize serving those most in need over all else. However,

such an agenda will not be readily accepted by the governmental agencies and private

corporations currently most significantly responsible for disaster management and reconstruction


Paul Farmer, in discussing outbreaks of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis in Russian

prisons, notes that “the [public] health angle on human rights may prove more pragmatic than

approaching the problem as one of penal reform alone” (2005: 236). In other words, although he

contextualizes many of the same societal failures discussed here as structural violence and

violations of human rights, he argues that such contexts may not be the most useful for actually

convincing others to make change. This insight has profound implications for seekers of justice

in disaster response efforts: although combating structural violence is the end goal, it may not

always be the best perspective in which to frame the battle. In Farmer’s words, the language of

structural violence is not particularly pragmatic.

How, then, can these eleven opportunity objectives be best implemented? How can those

who do speak in the language of social justice and structural violence convince those who do not

that such objectives are worth pursuing? Such a translation is not as difficult as one might

imagine. Although there may exist many others, nine concrete actions are presented here which

achieve the eleven objectives, yet do so indirectly, without the vocabulary of structural violence

or social justice. All nine steps can be taken by various actors already involved in disaster

management and response work, and have the potential to save lives and money and return

affected communities to economic viability and independence as soon as possible, making

disaster recovery work more financially feasible and politically expedient.

Two of these actions would nonetheless require major priority shifts within the
Cohen-Price 119

institutions performing them, as appreciating their utility requires a much more long-term,

longitudinal vision of value and success than most corporations and national governments appear

to embrace:

1. National governments, private companies, and other major participants in development

and the large scale production and use of the earth’s resources can reverse risk-producing

processes so as to mitigate climate change and dangerous urban settlement and migration

patterns. (Achieving Opportunity Objective #10)

2. Building social capital and thin trust, and making disaster awareness and preparedness

part of culture, can give communities more agency and cohesion and make them less

vulnerable to disaster. This responsibility falls not just to neighborhood groups seeking to

protect their own communities and governments looking to lessen the effects of disasters

on their citizens; it is the obligation of all social and political players whose actions affect

social capital, trust, and social interaction, especially private industries involved in

vulnerability-increasing behavior. 46 (Achieving Opportunity Objective #4)

The next seven actions can be proven useful to the actors who might take them without such a

significant priority shift. Most can occur within their existing framework of goals; in other

words, they can save lives and money right now.

3. Local community stakeholders and government at all levels can limit the likelihood of

emotional and physical trauma and lessen the monetary damage disasters can impart by

performing vulnerability assessments and doing hazard mitigation work. (Achieving

Opportunity Objectives #4 and #10)

See footnote 27 for one example of private industry’s responsibility for disaster preparedness. See Putnam 2000
for a detailed look at the many players responsible for the maintenance of social capital and thin trust in society.
Cohen-Price 120

4. Local governments, neighborhood groups, and urban planners can sponsor visionary,

community-driven planning that will prepare communities to take steps towards

thoughtfully-considered and healthy futures, in or out of the context of disaster.

(Achieving Opportunity Objective #8)

5. Not-for-profit institutions, grassroots organizations, and local leaders can use the instant

social barrier-removal and cohesion of disaster communities to build social capital for the

future, in order to reclaim agency in the reconstruction process and long after. (Achieving

Opportunity Objective #2)

6. All parties, through recognizing that the structural failures that appear in disaster are

manifestations of existing problems, not newly created ones, can discover the opportunity

that reconstruction presents to challenge those problems. Those who seek to rebuild in

partnership with affected communities can refuse to allow those who wish to accumulate

power to usurp the language of rebirth (Opportunity Objectives #3, #5, and #6).

7. Local government can invest in the redesign and improvement of infrastructure to more

efficiently provide services to its citizens instead of rebuilding back only what was; state

and federal government can enable such investment by changing emergency funding

regulations. (Achieving Opportunity Objective #9).

8. Government institutions can reform their contracting and oversight procedures in order to

employ only those private responders and rebuilders who prioritize community-driven

response programs and effective relief and reconstruction over profit margins and

securing the next contract. (Achieving Opportunity Objective #7)

9. Institutional disaster responders, both public and private, can seek and cherish instead of

deny all types of local input in relief and reconstruction, from search and rescue activities
Cohen-Price 121

and reconstruction labor to participation in planning and the prioritization of different

aspects of the recovery process, in order to provide the most efficient, successful, and

effective response possible. (Achieving Opportunity Objective #1 and #11)

The expression of such social justice-oriented opportunities in the language of economy,

efficiency, and the traditional goals of disaster management highlights how changes to disaster

relief and reconstruction methodologies can be found mutually beneficial to all parties, including

Figure 9.1: The Genealogy of Structural Violence, with Disasters as an Escape

Cohen-Price 122

institutional disaster responders, advocates of just relief and reconstruction, and the communities

both groups are trying to serve. 47 If traditional institutional responders and those specifically

seeking justice, act concurrently in accordance with a set of guidelines such as those presented

here, they can together provide effective response and capture the opportunity disaster presents

to break the cycle of structural violence and vulnerability and build a healthier community (see

Figure 9.1). Put simply, in disaster, the best way to protect the oppressed from suffering in the

short and long term is to provide good and just disaster response.

The most fundamental lesson to be drawn from the experience of disaster responders in

New Orleans and Greensburg is how crucial good leadership is not only for seeking justice but

simply for not allowing the situation to get any worse. Those interviewed for this project point to

two distinct traits crucial for such good leadership: first, leaders must demonstrate a deep

understanding of the affected community and its needs; second, leaders must strike a balance

between perhaps thick-headed conviction and the open ears of partnership and community-

driven action.

The stories of Latoya Cantrell and Kevin Brown in their respective neighborhoods in

New Orleans confirm the utility of the first trait. Remarkably successful response and

reconstruction work occurred in Broadmoor and Holly Grove because those leading the

respective neighborhood responses—Cantrell and Brown—had lived and worked in their

communities for years. They were both, if not actively trusted by many of their neighbors, at a

minimum known to be long-time residents who took active roles in their neighborhoods. And,

because of their experience working for social justice before Katrina, they were familiar with the

neighborhood, its residents, their resources, and their needs.

In this light, then, just relief and just reconstruction are what Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch calls “head
fakes,” in which a greater action is performed or greater knowledge gained than the explicitly stated intent
(Pausch 2007).
Cohen-Price 123

In Greensburg, the work of Mayor John Janssen and City Administrator Steve Hewitt

demonstrates the importance of the second trait. Striking a balance between steadfast decision-

making in the face of anger and discontent and reaching out for input from community members

is not easy. Despite difficulties, the two did a remarkable job guiding Greensburg to a master

plan, then enforcing it, simultaneously seeking the opinions and visions of Greensburg’s

residents while not allowing the needs and wants of individuals to detract from the consideration

of the needs of the community.

When residents, due to disaster, have been evacuated or are unreachable, otherwise

occupied with survival, or too traumatized to constructively contribute to community planning

processes, the ability of leaders to know what is best for their community and make decisions in

the absence of input is crucial. Although leaders are faced with the same—possibly more

intense—emotional and physical coping needs, they are often granted the freedom to make broad

executive decisions. Whether or not they are forgiven for claiming power and making errors

depends on how the recovered community judges the leader’s actions and the eventual success of

response efforts. The ability of some leaders to know and act on what is best for the survival and

improvement of their community is a topic for further research; certainly, some voices are lost in

their success. However, it is clear that leaders of small communities, such as towns like

Greensburg and urban neighborhoods like Broadmoor and Holly Grove, have a distinct

advantage in the recovery process, as they have fewer differences to reconcile and visions to

synthesize. Partnership between those in leadership roles and grassroots agents of relief and

recovery remains key to finding justice after disaster, and possibilities for such dwindle as the

scope increases. This too is a topic for further research.

This paper must not be understood as a justification to delay the challenge of structural
Cohen-Price 124

violence until disaster strikes. It must be noted that the complexities of the problems at hand

should not be excuses to not start now, in everyday life. As issues of structural violence become

more embedded into the status quo, they only become more difficult to solve. The downward

cycle of structural violence is simply an indication that we need to start fighting it right now. The

longer we wait, the harder it will be. More, Latoya Cantrell, Kevin Brown, and Paul Farmer

(2005) show us those who fight structural violence every day are the most prepared to fight it in


While we work every day to challenge structural violence, we must, in solidarity with

those most vulnerable to hazards, specifically prepare to act quickly and competently for justice

in the aftermath of disaster events. The holistic and community-driven approaches discussed here

are just some of a watershed of many possible pragmatic disaster management methods that

challenge oppression and build social capital. It is options such as these that allow us to take

substantive steps towards breaking the cycle of structural violence and building stronger,

healthier communities. While waiting for a disaster to bring problems into relief and make them

simpler to solve is clearly wrong, not examining and implementing such options in preparation

for and after disaster would be no less a crime.

Cohen-Price 125

Appendix A: List of Eleven Opportunity Objectives

The opportunity objectives outlined throughout Chapters Four and Five have been reprinted here
for ease of reference.

1. Provide effective relief while building a social momentum of action by creating

coordinated partnerships with grassroots responders already on the ground, asking them

for sustained help, and arming them with the right tools to provide it. (p. 45)

2. In order to build the agency and cohesion necessary to combat structural violence and

vulnerability, capitalize on every opportunity to build social capital by fostering and

maintaining the community connection, “doing with” altruism, and thin trust generated

by disasters and the relief phase of disaster response. (p. 49)

3. In order to build a holistic agenda for social change, interpret and publicize newfound

problems and inequalities not as new issues created by disaster but as latent, preexisting

issues manifested by it. (p. 51)

4. Capitalize on the shared experience of vulnerability across a disaster-affected community

to legitimize and institutionalize disaster preparedness practices that will, over time, build

social capital and reduce vulnerability. (p. 52)

5. Recognize the opportunity inherent in reconstruction work to rethink, redesign, and

rebuild physical capital in ways that challenge structural violence and build social capital,

without falling victim to the tabula rasa interpretation of disaster events. (p. 63)

6. Reclaim the radically optimistic language usurped by pro-privatization entrepreneurs; use

it to describe justice-seeking, not power-centralizing reconstruction. (p. 63)

7. Maintain and increase constructive private-sector involvement in reconstruction, while

improving the government contracting process and increasing oversight over contractors
Cohen-Price 126

to guarantee that supporting affected communities as effectively as possible is the

primary objective of all participants in reconstruction. (p. 64)

8. Invest time and energy into holistic and visionary community and urban planning,

seeking input from the community and other stakeholders at every turn. (p. 67)

9. Re-vision infrastructure design to remedy structural violence, and then rebuild

infrastructure to new standards as efficiently and rapidly as possible while assisting

(physically, logistically, and financially) in the reconstruction of private homes and

businesses. (p. 68)

10. Rebuild to mitigate vulnerability to future hazards by (a) sponsoring programs for home-,

business-, and landowners; (b) considering the impact of development and global

warming on hazard strength and frequency; and (c) fostering the regrowth of natural

barriers that protect coastal areas from water-borne hazards. (p. 70)

11. Private sector for-profit reconstruction ventures should seek to employ local workers at

living wages, and not-for-profit participation in reconstruction should utilize local

volunteers and encourage sweat equity wherever possible; such local involvement will

simultaneously generate physical, financial, and social capital in affected communities.

(p. 72)
Cohen-Price 127

Appendix B: Interviews Conducted by Author 48

Charles Sharpe Battalion Chief, Howard County (Maryland) Fire and 26-Oct-09
Rescue Services
Jim Stevenson Mass Care Manager, American Red Cross 29-Dec-09

New Orleans
Earl Carr Public Insurance Adjuster, Carr & Associates 5-Jan-10
Adacia Taranto* Intake/Crisis Social Worker, Lurline Mental Health Center 5-Jan-10
Ruth Terry-Sipos* Coordinator, Hospital/Homebound Services, St. Tammany 5-Jan-10
Parish School District
Nathan Rothstein Journalist, Volunteer, Political Activist 6-Jan-10
Jonathan Graboyes Director of Housing Recovery, Broadmoor Development 6-Jan-10
Dr. Brenda Hatfield* Chief Administrative Officer, City of New Orleans 6-Jan-10
Cynthia Sylvain-Lear* Deputy Chief Administrative Officer, City of New Orleans 6-Jan-10
Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed Director, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency 6-Jan-10
(Ret)* Preparedness, City of New Orleans
Robert Fogarty Executive Director, 6-Jan-10
Patricia Gay Executive Director, Preservation Resource Center of New 7-Jan-10
Daniela Rivero Executive Director, Rebuilding Together New Orleans 7-Jan-10
Holly Heine Director of Operations & Communications, Jericho Road 8-Jan-10
Episcopal Housing Initiative
Anna Hrybyk* Program Manager, Louisiana Bucket Brigade 8-Jan-10
Eric Parrie* Louisiana Bucket Brigade, New Teachers Project 8-Jan-10
Earthea Nance Assistant Professor of Environmental Planning and Hazard 8-Jan-10
Mitigation, Department of Planning and Urban Studies,
University of New Orleans
Shirley Laska Founder, Center for Hazards, Assessment, Response, and 10-Jan-10
Technology (CHART), University of New Orleans
M. Harrison Boyd Executive Assistant to the Mayor, Technology & 11-Jan-10
Recovery Program Delivery (Community Development
Unisa Barrie Project Manager, New Orleans Redevelopment Authority 11-Jan-10
Yolanda Rodriguez Executive Director, New Orleans City Planning 11-Jan-10

Asterisks denote group interviews
Cohen-Price 128

Michael Robinson* Neighborhood Coordinator, Jericho Road Episcopal 11-Jan-10

Housing Initiative
Rachel Glicksman* Assistant Neighborhood Organizer, Jericho Road 11-Jan-10
Episcopal Housing Initiative
Kevin Brown Executive Director, Trinity Christian Community 12-Jan-10
Chris Rose Journalist, Author 12-Jan-10
Howard Hunter President, Louisiana Historical Society 12-Jan-10

Bob Dixson Mayor, City of Greensburg (April 2008 - present) 14-Jan-10
Chuck Banks Principal, Chuck Banks Associates (previous Director, 14-Jan-10
Kansas USDA Rural Development)
Matt Deighton Resident 15-Jan-10
Daniel Wallach Executive Director, Greensburg Greentown 15-Jan-10
Taylor Schmidt Resident 17-Jan-10
Darin Headrick Superintendent, Greensburg School District (#422) 18-Jan-10
Bob Wetmore Executive Director, Kiowa County Chamber of Commerce 19-Jan-10
& Kiowa County Development Corporation
Ed Schoenberger Kiowa County Historian 19-Jan-10
John Janssen Mayor, City of Greensburg (May 2007 - April 2008) 19-Jan-10
Steve Hewitt City Administrator, City of Greensburg 20-Jan-10
Mitzi Hesser Kiowa County Health Department 20-Jan-10
Cohen-Price 129

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