Disasters, Rhetoric

Hurricanes and Rhetoric

Sunday, 10th September 2017

from Sept. 10, 2017


As it happens, I’ve written about hurricanes before. I focused on how places get made, or don’t, in the wake of a disaster. The one in question for this paper was Hurricane Charley, back in 2004. It struck me that there was a marked difference between how Orlando was handling the aftermath of the storm and other places such as Ft. Myers were. Orlando was actively discouraging what we might think of as place-making imagination, that is, the ability for people to see their places as cohesive and having meaning. In Orlando, the message for people affected was – do nothing. Wait for the official state and corporate actors to do things. Other places did not have this emphasis.

So, I’m interested in whether we’ve learned anything about making places. Does a disaster make a place, or just reveal the place that is already there? Maybe a moot point. The truism about places is that “everyone pulls together” and helps each other. But of course, that isn’t really true – race and class barriers still exist. We’re seeing it in the differential effect in Houston, and I’m sure we will see the same thing in Florida.

The interesting thing to me is the rhetoric that surrounds all this. Disaster uncovers the fault lines in a place – but then, how are those fault-lines naturalized, that is, made to be “that’s just how things are” and “those people should have known better than to stay” (whether they really had a choice or not) and “they’re poor but look how they pull together” (as if poverty is not so bad because it gives greater spiritual/communal consciousness, and so those of us who aren’t poor don’t have to feel so bad or think that we have anything to do with the inequality in the world).

It is interesting to see what kind of place we imagine, and what kind of place the rest of the country/world imagines for us. New Orleans in Katrina – that was a place that motivated little response from a lot of official actors. We can speculate on the reasons for that – lots of fingers will be pointed. Whatever the reasons, it seems clear that people had foregone conclusions about what kind of place New Orleans was, and what kind of people lived there. The FEMA trucks that only the year before sat at the border of Florida ready to go for all our hurricanes, suddenly became completely incompetent for Katrina.

There are stories going around about how lots of Floridians are going to shoot their guns at the storm, because that’s what we do here in Florida, apparently. There are other “Florida man” type stories floating around. But the real question for me is, have we learned anything in 13 years since Charlie, Frances, Jeanne, and Ivan rolled through, about what it means to be a place? Stay tuned.

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