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American Disasters

American Disasters

by Steven Biel (Editor)


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Long after the dead have been buried, and lives and property rebuilt, the social and cultural impact of disasters lingers. Examining immediate and long term responses to such disasters as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Challenger explosion, American Disasters explores what natural and man made catastrophes reveal about the societies in which they occur.
Ranging widely, essayists here examine the 1900 storm that ravaged Galveston, Texas, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Titanic sinking, the Northridge earthquake, the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, the 1977 Chicago El train crash, and many other devastating events. These catastrophes elicited vastly different responses, and thus raise a number of important questions. How, for example did African Americans, feminists, and labor activists respond to the Titanic disaster? Why did the El train crash take on such symbolic meaning for the citizens of Chicago? In what ways did the San Francisco earthquake reaffirm rather than challenge a predominant faith in progress?
Taken together, these essays explain how and why disasters are transformative, how people make sense of them, how they function as social dramas during which communities and the nation think aloud about themselves and their direction.
Contributors include Carl Smith, Duane A. Gill, Ann Larabee, J. Steven Picou, and Ted Steinberg.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814713457
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2001
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Steven Biel is Director of Studies in History and Literature at Harvard University, and the author of Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"A Tempestuous Spirit Called
Hurri Cano"

Hurricanes and Colonial Society in the British
Greater Caribbean

    Matthew Mulcahy

English colonizers of the New World expected to encounter a harsh and threatening physical environment. The deep, dark forests, the unexpectedly extreme climate, the unknown flora and fauna—all were perceived as menacing and potentially disruptive to the colonial project. But perhaps nothing was more alien or more threatening to colonists in the Caribbean and southern colonies than the hurricanes and tropical storms that regularly swept across the region, leveling cities and plantations, disrupting trade and commerce, and plunging society into general disarray. Hurricanes were an entirely new phenomenon for the English in the seventeenth century. Matthew Mulcahy's essay explores the early English encounter with hurricanes, analyzes the manner in which these storms shaped perceptions of the physical environment of the New World, considers the social and cultural adaptations colonists made to accommodate these seasonal threats, and examines the role of hurricanes in marking the "Greater Caribbean"—a region stretching from Barbados to Virginia—as exotic and distinct from the rest of British America.

RESIDENTS OF SOUTH CAROLINA cast nervous eyes to the sky above them on the night of September 4, 1686. The weather had grown turbulent during the day, and as night fell, the clouds became increasingly "black and menacing." Colonists had heardtales from local Indians of great storms along the coast that had raised the ocean and rivers above the houses and trees where their new city, Charles Town, now stood. Many began to wonder if such a storm was now upon them, and more ominously, if they and their infant colony would survive it. Daybreak confirmed their worst fears as the dark clouds were transformed into "a hurricane wonderfully horrid and destructive." An anonymous survivor reported later to the Lords Proprietors in London that the storm rose in intensity throughout the day with "dismal, dreadful, and fatal consequences." The winds and rain raged with such fury that "Your Lordships cannot imagine the distracting horror that these united evils plunged us into." Ships were driven ashore and crushed into pieces, houses were blown down, and many colonists had not the "least cottage to secure us from the rigor of the rain." Corn that the day before had stood tall in the fields was beaten down and lay "rotting on the ground," and many feared the onset of famine. When it was all over, few signs of English settlement appeared to have survived, except as ruins. "The whole country seems to be one entire map of devastation," the correspondent informed the Proprietors. Trees and fences were blown down into "confused heaps," and cows and pigs were dispersed into the woods. Roads were impassable, "whereby all society and communication with our neighbors, one of the greatest comforts of our lives, is for many years rendered extraordinarily difficult." Whatever high hopes colonists had had for themselves and their settlement lay dashed among the ruins, and the colony faced "sad consequences ... both at present and ... for the future."

    Seventeenth-century English colonists migrating to South Carolina and other colonies in the "Greater Caribbean"—the plantation region extending from Barbados through Carolina—expected to encounter a harsh physical environment as they set about establishing permanent settlements. For colonists accustomed to England's temperate climate and its cleared and "settled" landscape, the New World appeared as a "hideous and desolate wilderness." Colonists worried about the scalding sun and sweltering temperatures of the region and their effects on English bodies and, by extension, English culture and values. The multitude of insects that greeted them was at best bothersome and at worst deadly. The dark forests were, in their eyes, home to wild beasts and wild men, both of which threatened to overwhelm them. None, however, were prepared for the seasonal hurricanes and tropical storms that routinely swept across the region and literally shook the fragile foundations of colonial society. Nothing about the New World environment was more alien or threatening to colonists in the Greater Caribbean than hurricanes. Indeed, nothing better represented the "wilderness" of America for colonists in the region than these strange and ferocious storms. "What is most to be feared," wrote one observer "is a general conspiracy of all the Winds ... which is called a Hurricane." Edmund Burke argued that while heat and humidity were "unpleasant to the English constitution," hurricanes were "the most terrible calamity" colonists faced in the Greater Caribbean. A later commentator believed hurricanes were "the most formidable enemy" and "the principle dread" of those who lived in the region.

    Modern historians have paid little attention to such sentiments. Fears of heat, of the wilderness, and of Native Americans have all been well documented by scholars, but few have considered the importance of hurricanes in shaping English perceptions and fears of the physical environment in this part of the New World. Nor have they examined in detail the impact of such fears on the mentality of colonists or the development of colonial society in the Greater Caribbean. Hurricanes were a new experience for English colonists, but their presence quickly distinguished the colonies of the Greater Caribbean from others in British America and forced colonists to adapt in unique ways to the environment of the region. Hurricanes destroyed colonists' crops and commerce, leveled their cities and plantations, and plunged society into general disarray. The physical and economic losses wrought by the storms certainly were tremendous and of great concern to colonists anxious to establish profitable plantation enterprises. But hurricanes also raised larger, and deeply troubling, questions for colonists in South Carolina and elsewhere in the region: What kind of stable societies could be established in the face of such regular destructive forces? What caused these unfamiliar and terrifying storms? Were they signs from God, and if so, what did they mean? Could anything be done to lessen their impact? Such questions had no easy answers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but in asking them colonists' letters, diaries, and travel accounts reveal the extent to which hurricanes dominated the thoughts of those living in the Greater Caribbean and shaped the type of societies they established there.


Hurricanes were a uniquely American phenomenon and an unexpected one for English travelers to the New World in the seventeenth century. Although Europe occasionally experienced storms of great intensity, they were not comparable in magnitude (or seasonal regularity) to the hurricanes that lashed the southern North American coast and the Caribbean basin. Columbus was the first European to encounter a hurricane, and it was through him that the Arawak and Carib Indian word for the storms entered European vocabularies. Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola in June 1495, Columbus reported a "whirlwind" so strong that it pulled up entire trees by their roots and "beat down to the bottom of the sea three ships." The local Arawak Indians, Columbus noted, called "these tempests of the air ... Furacanes." Columbus's account was first translated into English in 1555, but knowledge of the word and the storms remained the province of a small elite. When passengers on the ship Sea Venture encountered a terrible storm off the coast of Bermuda in 1609, none knew to call the storm a hurricane. "For mine own part," passenger William Strachey wrote, "I have been in some stormes before, as well as upon the coast of Barbary and Algeere, in the Levant.... Yet all I had suffered together might not hold comparison to this." Likewise, when William Shakespeare used Strachey's account of the storm and the passengers' travails on Bermuda as the basis for his final play, he did not call it The Hurricane, although the word was known to him. ("Hurricano" appears in two earlier plays, King Lear and Troilus and Cressida.) He perhaps recognized that such a title would prove puzzling to the vast majority of his audience and chose The Tempest instead.

    Colonists may have had no knowledge of the storms when they left England, but they quickly learned about the destructive power of hurricanes as they attempted to establish settlements throughout the Greater Caribbean. John Smith reported that less than nine months after colonists had landed at St. Christopher in 1624 and begun the laborious process of building houses and planting fields, a "hericano" struck and "blew it all away." Two years later a second storm again leveled the colony. According to Smith, the hurricane "blew downe all our houses, Tobacco and two Drums [were thrown] into the aire we know not wither ... all our provisions thus lost, we were very miserable." Smith wrote that colonists were forced to scavenge in the "wilde woods" for food, and they struggled to survive until the next June when turtles came ashore, providing a welcome addition to their scanty diet.

    Smith's terse comments tell us little about how early colonists reacted to hurricanes. Details on the terror caused by the storms, however, came twelve years later when another tempest leveled St. Christopher in 1638. John Taylor, an English writer, heard about the strange storm in the West Indies from sailors on the London docks. He published a short pamphlet based on their stories entitled New and Strange Newes from St. Christopher, of a tempestuous spirit which is called by the Indians a Hurri Cano. The hurricane did extensive damage, according to Taylor, killing seventy-five people and sinking five ships, "besides the harm it did to many Houses and goods." The winds were so strong that they carried men "into the Aire five or sixe foote high, as if they were no more but ragges." Panic-stricken colonists evacuated their houses,

not daring to remaine in them for feare that they should be blowne down about their eaves; at which dangerous times they do creep for safety into holes, Caves, pits, Dens, and hollow places of the Earth, which are either naturall of themselves, or digged and framed by Art or laborious industry of man, which places are good harbours and defences against the Hurri-cano. They doe likewise tye or make fast Hamackoes or hanging Cabins unto two Trees ... being hang'd above the ground sixe or seven foote, either with strong ropes or Iron Chaines; and so they swing two and againe like a Bell when it is rung, when this tempest is.

    Some also followed the example of local Indians, who tied themselves to trees to keep from being blown away. Taylor depicted such a scene in a woodcut accompanying his text, providing the first illustration of a hurricane for English readers.

    As colonization efforts expanded in the seventeenth century and new colonies were established or captured from the Spanish, reports of the storms and of the terror and damage wrought by them arrived from all the colonies throughout the region. The word "hurricane" was soon applied mistakenly to any violent storm of wind and rain. Accounts of "hurricanes" surfaced in England, New England, and even Holland. Although hurricanes occasionally make their way up the Atlantic coast, and rarer still across the Atlantic, most of the storms described in these accounts were not actually hurricanes. Increase Mather, for example, wrote of "a formidable Hurricane, scarce bearing sixty yards in its breadth, and spending itself in about seven minutes of time," that hit Massachusetts in 1669. Tornadoes, wind squalls, and simply violent storms often were labeled hurricanes by observers who had heard of the storms but knew little about them.

    Despite some confusion, most contemporaries quickly realized that the storms had definite geographic limits. Hurricanes were, according to Edmond Halley (he of comet fame), "peculiar to the Caribbean." When a violent storm struck the Plymouth colony in August 1635, William Bradford described it as a "mighty storm of wind and rain as none ever living in these parts, either English or Indian, ever saw, being like ... those hurricanes or typhoons that writers make mention of in the Indies." European commentators explicitly discouraged facile comparisons between hurricanes and storms in Europe. Daniel Defoe assured his readers that although the "Great Storm" that hit England in 1703 was terrible and its destruction great, it was nothing compared to an actual hurricane. "In England we feel none of the hurricanes of Barbados and Jamaica," Defoe wrote.

    Although the storms were "peculiar to the Caribbean," the idea of the Caribbean in the colonial period extended beyond the region we think of today. Many contemporaries spoke of South Carolina as "Carolina in ye West Indies," and the presence of hurricanes was one reason they did so. For the most part, in the eyes of contemporaries, the hurricane zone was limited geographically to this Greater Caribbean. Storms may occasionally have struck other parts of British America, but in no other region were hurricanes so regular a threat or so feared by colonists.

    In addition to geographic limits, colonists also slowly discovered that hurricanes (and tropical storms more generally) were a seasonal problem. Writers in the first decades of colonization believed the storms could strike at any time. John Taylor wrote that it was "uncertaine" when a hurricane might hit, "for it hath no certaine or set times either yeares or dayes for the coming of it." A 1655 pamphlet advised travelers to arrive in the region before August lest they encounter "the hurricanes, as they call them ... that doe terribly infest the Atlantick and Indian Seas all winter long, from September to March." Gradually, however, colonists learned that the storms had more limited seasonal boundaries. This information came from Carib Indians. Several colonists noted that the Caribs had the ability to forecast the onset of storms. "The Indians are so skilfull that they doe know two or three or fore dayes before hand the coming of it," Taylor observed. "They doe observe that just so many dayes as it will be before the Hurri-Cano doth come, so many circles will bee as it were fringed and gleaming about the Moone; as if it bee but one day before it come, then there will be but one Circle; if two Circles, then it will be two daies." The Indians regularly warned colonists to beware of hurricanes in the late summer, and by the 1660s, colonists had learned enough to report that the storms were limited to "the monthes of July, August, or September: at other times there is no fear of it." At some point this information was recorded in a local proverb: "June too soon, July stand by, August you must, September remember, October all over."

    The seasonality of the storms did little to assuage the terror they inspired, and colonists lived in constant fear throughout these months. Residents never knew if a late summer storm might simply blow over or turn into a terrible tempest. Any storm in August or September was often viewed as "the forerunner of a hurricane" and created panic among colonists. Traveling through the Carolinas in 1765, John Bartram noted:

I frequently heard ye women talk how fearfull thay was if A thunder gust arose, of ye wind tacking to ye Northeast and ye danger of a hurricane, which I looked upon as a feminin weakness ... supposing thes grievous calamities came but once an age. But upon making perticular enquiry of ye oldest inhabitants I was satisfied that by their frequent grevious sufferings thay had Sufficient reason for those anctious concerns.

    Colonists and travelers had various opinions about how often hurricanes struck. Most believed they could be expected once every seven years; others thought they had become more frequent by the end of the seventeenth century. But ultimately no one knew for certain, and there were enough examples of frequent, even yearly, hurricanes to give all residents pause. Although individual colonies often went years without experiencing a hurricane or major tropical storm, hardly a year went by that some colony in the region did not suffer tremendous devastation. Even if they escaped, residents soon heard the bad news from elsewhere and knew that it was only a matter of time before they too were hit.


Increased knowledge about the geographical and seasonal limits of hurricanes raised questions among colonists regarding the causes of the storms. Early colonists in the region, like those throughout British America, interpreted great and violent storms and other disasters as "wonders." Wonders were, in David Hall's words, strange and unusual events "betokening the presence of the supernatural." The Protestant deity was an activist one who could and did intervene in the affairs of the world, causing comets to streak across the sky, earthquakes to rumble underfoot, and storms to rage. These events were special providences by which God expressed his displeasure with the world and signaled worse fates to come if repentance was not offered and reformation not undertaken. Although most had divine origins, some wonders arose from the supernatural power of Satan, whom God allowed to interfere with sinners on earth. Always, however, "wonders evidenced the will of God."

    Most early colonists agreed that hurricanes were wondrous events, but a great deal of confusion existed at first about what message they contained and for whom the message was intended. Were the storms sent to punish and instruct colonists or the "barbarous" Caribs? For many early colonists, the ability of the Caribs to forecast the storms bespoke some nefarious interaction with evil forces. As John Taylor noted, "where God is least known and honoured, there the Devill hath the most power and domination." Others agreed, writing that Caribs knowledge of the storms and their patterns was evidence of "witchcrafts" and "Councel with the Devil." Some colonists, however, believed the storms were directed at colonists. Taylor, for example, noted that if hurricanes had some links to the devil, they also fulfilled the wishes of God and contained a message to colonists to begin the work of converting the Indians to Christianity. Just as in the Old World God had used slavery to bring heathens to "Christian Liberty," in the Greater Caribbean hurricanes were his tool for proselytizing. "In the latest Dayes of the World all are not civilized; there are yet many Heathens, Indians, and barbarous Nations unconverted [and] Knowne Examples in America, and in divirs Islands, adjacent, where this Huri Cano is frequent," Taylor wrote, and it was the colonists' duty to set about the work of conversion. Others saw the storms more directly as a sign from God regarding their own sinful behavior. Virginians had no doubt that a 1667 hurricane was a judgment from God, and one noted that the storm would seem a minor event if colonists did not alter their ways: "God doth not for every small sin send a great Judgment, but being like a loving Father, First he admonisheth and warneth of our sins." The hurricane was such a warning, and if sin persisted in Virginia, "He will utterly destroy us."

    Belief in the divine origins of hurricanes continued throughout the eighteenth century, and many continued to interpret the storms as warnings or punishments for their sins. Sophia Hulme, a Quaker in South Carolina, for example, informed residents that the 1752 hurricane that devastated the colony was a "humbling visitation from the most high God" and a clear "Mark of his displeasure against your transgressions." Colonial governors in the Greater Caribbean likewise continued to call for days of fasting and thanksgiving after major hurricanes throughout the eighteenth century Proclamations announcing the fasts declared the storms "punishments from God" and called upon colonists to humble themselves and give thanks for their survival. Indeed, according to one observer, such days were the only true "religious" holidays observed in Jamaica.

    Nevertheless, beginning in the latter decades of the seventeenth century some colonists began to question the supernatural origins of the storms. If these storms were indeed the work of supernatural forces, several writers asked, why did they strike with such regularity during certain months of the year? And why did they only strike in this particular part of the world? Rather than coming from the hand of God with a message for colonists, these writers suggested, hurricanes derived from natural causes.

    One of the earliest statements of this view came from a ship's captain named Langford who spent several years in the Caribbean in the 1650s. Langford argued that hurricanes were natural occurrences, and moreover, that the Caribs ability to forecast their onset had nothing to do with the devil and everything to do with their close observations of the natural world. Langford learned the "Signs or Prognosticks" by which the Caribs foretold hurricanes from a captured Indian slave. According to his informant, the storms struck only on the "Full, Change, or Quarters of the Moon." Prior to a storm, according to Langford, the following conditions were noticeable:

That Day you will see the Skies very turbulent, the Sun more red than at other times, a great calm, and the Hills clear of Clouds or Foggs, over them, which in the high lands are seldom so. Likewise in the Hollows or Concaves of the Earth, or Wells, there will be a great Noise as if you were in a great Storm, and at the Night the Stars looking very big with Burrs about them and the North West Sky very black and foul, the Sea smelling Stronger than at other times, as usually It doth in great Storms; and sometimes that Day, for an Hour or two, the Wind blows very hard Westerly, out of his usual Course. On the Full of the Moon you have the same Signs, but a great Burr about the Moon, and many times about the Sun.


Excerpted from AMERICAN DISASTERS by . Copyright © 2001 by New York University. Excerpted by permission.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"While we have numerous books about specific disasters, the general subfield of disaster studies in the context of cultural history is just beginning to take shape, and this work will in a way mark its debut. . . . This is one of those rare books that is scholarly and intellectually sophisticated, yet because of the inherent interest in the topic and the literary talent of the authors, it should have significant appeal to the general reading public."

-Paul Boyer,Merle Curti Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Covering disasters both natural (hurricanes in colonial America, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) and mechanical (the Challenger explosion, Chicago's deadly 1977 el train crash), these essays use contemporary media and political responses to explicate the cultural ramifications of the events. Novels published after the great Chicago fire of 1871 emphasized how the fire was both a punishment for the city's sins and also "the inscrutable workings of a divine hand" to make Chicago a more perfect physical city. Feminist writings used the chivalry of male passengers in the 1912 Titanic sinking to criticize 'the failure of men to protect women and children on shore,' while African-Americans' view of it as a 'white disaster' generated a large body of populist poems and songs that celebrated the absence of black victims.... Biel... has assembled a provocative and illuminating collection."

-Publishers Weekly,

"Not earthquakes or oil spills, but the symbolic interpretation of untoward events is under examination here. Writing across the disciplines with a keen eye for difference and power, these students of American society insist that disasters offer no single 'truth' or 'lesson' but occasions for articulating and contesting claims on the nation's future. A brilliant thread runs through the collection, illuminating how people make even the most destructive events meaningful—and do so very differently. The authors' consistent attention to cultural interpretations which resist capitalist values and dominant gender and racial hierarchies was especially rewarding. This volume encourages us to think more deeply about what is at stake when disasters unfold in American communities. It should top the reading list of disaster scholars entrenched in the empirical social sciences and attract a new audience of those passionately interested in people, place, and risk."

-Dr. Elaine Enarson,Disaster Sociologist, coeditor of The Gendered Terrain of Disasters: Through Women's Eyes

"A provocative and illuminating collection."

-Publishers Weekly

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