At the end of August, residents along the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast will observe the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The end of August is also when BP PLC says it will have finally completed a relief well in the Gulf of Mexico. In theory, the new well will permanently staunch the Mississippi Canyon 252 well gusher that began on April 20 with the explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. Thus, as Gulf Coast residents memorialize one “worst environmental disaster,” they christen another.
- Coverage: SSRC Abe Fellows Report on the Fukushima Earthquake and Tsunami
- Book: Disaster and the Politics of Intervention, Andrew Lakoff, ed.
- Book Series: The Privatization of Risk
- Web Forum: Haiti, Now and Next
- Web Forum: Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from The Social Sciences
- Research Hub: Hurricane Katrina
- Lecture: “From Common Humanity to Humanitarian Obligation,” Craig Calhoun
Book: The Measure of America, 2010-2011: Mapping Risks and Resilience. SSRC/NYU Press
Whether they are set in motion by planet system events like hurricanes, by technological accidents like the Deepwater Horizon explosion, or by some combination of the two, environmental disasters are marked by sudden, violent, large-scale disruption to ecological and social systems. Such events are “disastrous” because they create dramatic and visible changes in natural, social, and built environments. It is the chaos of physical change we notice most. Lakes die, wildlife disappears, and forests are flattened. Buildings topple and bridges collapse. Neighborhoods and cities—sometimes entire societies—can rupture and come apart.
We tend to measure recovery from disaster in physical terms as well: beaches are cleaned, oyster beds are redeveloped, wildlife returns, and levees are fortified. Homes and communities are rebuilt. It is the physical order arising slowly from the wreckage that signifies disaster recovery.
Less often recognized, and so all the more important to consider, is the fact that the sudden and fundamentally physical changes that mark large-scale events as environmental disasters are also accompanied by less visible, but nevertheless deeply present, epistemic changes. In the wake of widespread physical destruction, states of knowledge tip toward ignorance. Questions multiply and answers evaporate. Certainty recedes like a tidal surge, sucked out to sea in the pull of the wave. What was known becomes unknown and possibly unknowable. In short, disasters create knowledge vacuums.
Though seldom acknowledged, knowledge vacuums are a central feature of environmental disaster. They have far-reaching consequences and demand great effort and expense to overcome. After Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge sent 131 billion gallons of water crashing through New Orleans’ battered levees, debates raged for months over why the levees failed and what witch’s brew of toxins was left behind in the flood water. In the knowledge vacuum produced by the current crisis, news accounts are similarly crowded with new questions involving an emergency valve’s failure, a gusher’s flow rate, a dispersant’s toxicity, the resilience of marine life, and much, much more.
But if disasters create knowledge vacuums, they also create nearly unrivaled opportunities for knowledge production. In Katrina’s wake, scores of scientists and engineers fanned out across New Orleans to study the failed levees and flood sediments. Their efforts produced thousands of pages of reports and hundreds of thousands of test results. Other experts representing a broad spectrum of natural, social, engineering, and health science fields threw additional intellectual weight into the analysis of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. The hundreds of books, journal articles, and reports published on the storm and its impacts provide a rough measure of their collective productivity. The new knowledge nestled inside these publications and the work and money that lie behind them illustrate a second epistemic feature of environmental calamity: disasters trigger disaster science.