Author Interview: Cynthia Kierner on Inventing Disaster

Inventing DisasterIn this Q&A, Cynthia Kierner discusses her book Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood, out now from UNC Press.

When hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and other disasters strike, we count our losses, search for causes, commiserate with victims, and initiate relief efforts. Amply illustrated and expansively researched, Inventing Disaster explains the origins and development of this predictable, even ritualized, culture of calamity over three centuries, exploring its roots in the revolutions in science, information, and emotion that were part of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and America.

Inventing Disaster is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Q: What inspired you to pursue this book on disasters? 

A: The book begins in Jamestown in 1607 and ends, more or less, with the Johnstown flood of 1889. Oddly, the event that inspired it was Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Jersey Shore (and New York City) in 2012. Because I grew up going to the shore, and still go there every summer, I found the news coverage of Sandy and the disaster relief efforts after the storm absolutely fascinating. I also noticed that the sorts of stories told about disaster victims and survivors—and the people who helped (or sometimes did not help) them—were pretty much the same as after other recent disasters. This led me to wonder about the origins of this way of responding to disasters—or what I call a culture of disaster.

Q: What is a “culture of disaster?”

A: A predictable, almost ritualized, series of responses to a calamity that causes death and destruction for a community or communities. Any culture of disaster is a product of its time and place. In other words, understandings of disasters and responses to them were different in, say, seventeenth-century England and nineteenth-century China—different from each other and from what we do in twenty-first-century America.

In the modern U.S., when disaster strikes, the media quickly provides basic information to people outside the affected area. Soon, these brief quantitative reports of losses of lives and property are supplemented by moving human-interest stories. Meanwhile, government and humanitarian groups arrive at the site of the disaster to provide relief and maintain order. Once the immediate crisis has passed—or has at least passed out of the public’s consciousness—the more affluent survivors file their insurance claims, while the authorities consider regulations or other initiatives that might prevent future disasters or limit their effects. However, they typically reject proposed regulations or initiatives as too expensive or inconvenient. Then, another disaster comes along, and the entire process begins all over.

Q: What is striking about the Jamestown colony’s trials and calamities in comparison to other disasters your book examines?

A: Famines and disease were rampant in Jamestown’s early years, killing the overwhelming majority of settlers. There was also at least one serious fire and a major hurricane. Today, these disasters would be widely publicized and give rise to both official and non-governmental relief efforts. However, at the time, virtually no one knew about the horrific situation in Jamestown; there were no newspapers, and the colony’s London-based corporate sponsors did everything they could to keep the situation quiet. The only disaster relief for Jamestown was to send more people and hope they didn’t die, though most of them did. In fact, roughly five out of six settlers died between the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and 1624, when the king revoked the Virginia Company’s charter and made Virginia a royal colony.

So, in the book, the Jamestown experience is my baseline. In my first chapter, I examine bad things that happened in early Jamestown, a time and place that was not yet enmeshed in a culture of disaster.

Q: I was surprised to see that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was the subject of an entire chapter in a book that is ostensibly about the emergence of an American culture of disaster. Why was Lisbon so important?

A: The Lisbon earthquake killed roughly 40,000 people. Among other things, it inspired the first international disaster relief effort in world history. But for my purposes, what was most important was its impact on the culture of philanthropy and benevolence in the British Empire. King George II played an unprecedented and widely publicized role in earthquake relief, which fit nicely with Britons’ emerging sense of themselves as a uniquely enlightened and benevolent people. Colonists in places like Boston and Virginia lavishly praised the king and—more important still—they came to expect relief from the mother country when disasters struck their communities. And they usually got some help from Britain—if not necessarily from the government, then from British relief committees.

Ironically, the decade or so before the American Revolution was the beginning of disaster relief within the British Empire. And while London’s official commitment to colonial disaster relief grew after that, the newly independent U.S. governments (both state and federal) were rarely involved in disaster relief before the twentieth century.

Q: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while researching for this book? 

A: The exploding steamboats! They were everywhere in nineteenth-century America. One estimate is that 233 steamboats exploded in the U.S. between 1816 and 1848 alone—an average of more than 10 each year—leaving thousands dead, thousands more injured, and many more bodies unrecovered and uncounted.

Such unrelenting death and destruction of ordinary people captured the public imagination. Gruesome descriptions of mangled corpses filled the newspapers and exploding steamboats became subjects for lithographs, museum exhibits, theatrical performances, sermons, and even children’s books. The frequency of steamboat disasters and the publicity surrounding the carnage they caused led to public demands for government intervention, which eventually resulted in the steamboat safety acts of 1838 and 1852, the first federal laws to regulate private corporations. I never expected steamboats to be such a major part of my story, but because of their cultural and political significance, they became the subject of my sixth chapter.

Q: Transportation-related calamities—shipwrecks, exploding steamboats, and train wrecks—all figure prominently in your story. Why?

A: I found that shipwreck stories, which became popular as Europeans explored and colonized the globe, were the first widely circulated disaster narratives. Among the seafaring and commercially minded populations of Britain and British colonial America, they were enormously popular—just as sensational stories about steamboat explosions, and then railroad wrecks, were for later generations.

Stories are an essential part of the culture of disaster because they evoked emotion, which, in turn, led to efforts to prevent disasters—or at least to limit the misery they caused—and also inspired post-disaster relief efforts. And these particular stories were so powerful, I think, because so many people could identify with them.

Most people had not experienced an earthquake or a hurricane, but many had been on a ship, steamboat, or train—or knew someone who had been. These transportation-related disaster stories were so affecting precisely because the conveyances that fatally malfunctioned were part of the fabric of daily life, so people could readily imagine themselves or their loved ones as victims of just that sort of deadly calamity.

Q: You argue that disasters became normalized in the modern American psyche. Why/how has this occurred?

A: Other scholars have made this point. On the one hand, it does seem that disasters are much more common (or “normal”) than they used to be, and that’s especially true for disasters that result from climate change and environmental degradation. On the other hand, modern Americans have more information about disasters across that globe than ever before. In terms of making disasters seem normal, rather than extraordinary, that information overload is really decisive.

My work situates the normalization of disaster in modern America in a longer historical context. In Jamestown in 1607, people didn’t even have the idea of “disaster” as we know it. Two hundred years later, Americans were on the verge of having a full-blown culture of disaster, albeit in a rudimentary form. I would argue that exploding steamboats were the normal, everyday disasters of the first half of the nineteenth century. In fact, sometimes the newspaper headline for a steamboat story would actually be “Another Steamboat Disaster.”

Q: And how does religion figure into all of this?

A: From start to finish, religion is an important part of my story. Early on, of course, most people viewed disasters literally as “acts of God,” and clergy interpreted hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and other calamities as providential judgments—God’s way of punishing sinners and encouraging people to repent. Many who took this position were able to reconcile it with advances in scientific understandings of earthquakes, hurricanes, and the like. In their view, God directly controlled the physical causes that resulted in these so-called natural phenomena.

Even today, some people see disasters as signs of divine wrath, but the role of religion in the culture of disaster has changed overall. As the prevailing image of God morphed from wrathful to benevolent, religion became mainly a source of comfort, not condemnation, for most people.

Q: Why do you choose to end your book with the Johnstown flood of 1889?

A: The Johnstown flood was America’s deadliest disaster up to that point. At least 2,209 people died. Disaster relief after the flood was the most ambitious undertaking for Clara Barton’s recently established American Red Cross. Print and pictures (including photographs), often transmitted by telegraph, spread the news of the flood’s destruction, which helped relief committees to collect more than $4,000,000 to aid survivors. The wealthy men whose refusal to maintain a local dam caused the flood got off scot-free. Eventually, the Johnstown flood became the subject of silent movies and amusement park spectacles.

Besides a great story and fabulous sources, the Johnstown flood offered a good end point for my book because what happened in Johnstown was remarkably similar to what happens today when Americans experience a major disaster. The only thing missing was the involvement of the federal government, though Congress occasionally had sent flood relief to other places by the 1880s. In May 1889, when the dam burst in Johnstown, however, Congress was not in session; by the time it reconvened in December, Barton’s Red Cross and various local relief committees had handled the situation effectively.

Q: Inventing Disaster also discusses the role of the government in providing disaster relief. How has the involvement of government changed over time?

A: Inventing Disaster is actually about a time when the U.S. government—and also, for that matter, the state governments—were rarely involved in disaster relief (or prevention). Readers may be shocked to learn that the Founding Fathers did not see humanitarian relief for disaster-ravaged communities as part of the mandate of the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, there was essentially no relief provided until the post-Civil War era, when problems like drought, famines, floods, and insect infestations became tangled up in federal Reconstruction efforts in the southern states.

For the first half of the twentieth century, federal disaster relief was ad hoc and mostly aimed to preserve property and maintain order (as opposed to helping the suffering, which remained mostly the job of the Red Cross and other non-governmental groups). Only in 1950 did Congress enact comprehensive national disaster legislation, which actually did not result in an immediate and dramatic expansion of federal involvement in disaster relief and prevention, though it was an important first step in that direction.

Q: How do disasters shed light on systemic social inequalities?

A: In terms of recent disasters, it’s pretty obvious. People of means use their cars to escape disaster zones and their credit cards to stay in hotels. (Only poor people were living in the Super Dome in New Orleans after Katrina.) Insurance—including taxpayer-funded flood insurance—helps homeowners recover, but renters get nothing. The media plays a role in exposing inequalities, but it also sometimes demonizes poor people and especially people of color. Studies show that, after Katrina and other recent disasters, when African Americans took things from stores, they were vilified as “looters” whereas when white people behaved similarly, they were described as “finding” things and “surviving.”

In earlier eras, the inequalities were just as bad—likely worse—but harder to document. I have no doubt that poor people must have suffered more from most types of disasters—especially fires and epidemics—and that committees who dispensed humanitarian aid privileged certain types of recipients over others. I also know that disaster stories typically featured white male heroes, regardless of what actually happened. African American heroism was virtually never recognized; black casualties sometimes went unnoticed, and they were never sentimentalized in the same way as dead white people.

Q: Tell me about the illustrations. Inventing Disaster has a lot of them.

A: The illustrations are important because visual representations were a critical part of the culture of disaster. Here again, the Lisbon earthquake, which was the subject of at least 49 contemporary images, was a key turning point. Visual representations of disasters were rare before Lisbon, but they would become increasingly common.

Improvements in lithography made disaster pictures more accessible to more people in the early nineteenth century, coinciding more or less with the advent of the steamboat (and steamboat explosions). Although all of the book’s chapters are amply illustrated, it would have been much easier just to load all the illustrations in the later chapters!

The work of Currier and Ives, the most successful U.S. lithographers, is famous for its celebration of American industry, prosperity, and growth, with images of orderly cities, western vistas, ships, and later railroads. What most people don’t realize is that a significant number of their prints also depicted the destruction of these same technological and topographic marvels. On his own and later in partnership with James Merritt Ives, Nathaniel Currier published at least 200 lithographs of steamboats, more than one-fourth of which portrayed explosions or collisions.

Q: How does Inventing Disaster speak to our response to disasters in the present?

A: Science, sentiment, and information—the three components of the culture of disaster that emerged over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—remain essential to how Americans understand and respond to disasters, though all three operate somewhat differently in a twentieth-century context. Whereas scientists in earlier eras strove to understand the causes of earthquakes, hurricanes, etc., we today have that knowledge but—in the U.S. at least—it is fashionable to reject scientific findings particularly when acting on them seems too expensive, inconvenient, or politically unpopular. Climate change is obviously the premier example.

Information used to be scarce and carefully curated, but now it is free-flowing and abundant. That’s sometimes good—consider famine relief for faraway Ethiopia in the 1980s—but sometimes not, especially when the news is fake or when it stigmatizes certain segments of the population. Sentiment and human-interest stories remain central to today’s culture of disaster. But the overwhelming feeling of being constantly bombarded with sad disaster stories seems to have led us to substitute momentary sentiment for sustained and effective action. Rather than fixing the problem, let’s just send our “thoughts and prayers.”


Photo by George Mason University / Creative Services

Cynthia A. Kierner is professor of history at George Mason University and the author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello.  For more information, visit the author’s website.