More on Vulnerability and Disaster

Blaikie, Piers, Terry Cannon, Ian David, and Ben Wisner. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters. East Sussex: Psychology Press, 2004. 

This week I read At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters by Piers Blaikie, Terry Cannon, Ian David, and Ben Wisner.

The premise of this work was that disasters caused by natural hazards are not as great of a threat to humanity as the types of risks experiences by a large number of the world’s population on a day-to-day basis. The authors state:

The crucial point about understanding why disasters happen is that it is not only natural events that cause them. They are also the product of social, political and economic environments (as distinct from the natural environment), because of these structures the lives of different groups of people. There is a danger in treating disasters as something peculiar, as events that deserve their own special focus. It is to risk separating ‘natural’ disasters from the social frameworks that influence how hazards affect people, thereby putting too much emphasis on the natural hazards themselves, and not nearly enough on the surround social environment.1

The authors go into discussion of the definition of vulnerability, the most common types of vulnerability, conventional views on disaster, and the intricate relationship between the natural and the social. While the authors make a point to say that technological catastrophes are not specifically included within the book, their analysis of risk and the reciprocal relationship between the human and the natural in disaster situations offers a great lens through which to consider my own project. As I discover more about the vulnerability in Saltville, Virginia in 1924, perhaps the definitions and descriptions of vulnerability and social structures in this book will enlighten my work, or perhaps I will find that Saltville does not fit the mold that the authors offer. Regardless, the second edition of this book appears to go one step beyond Steinberg’s Acts of God to consider an international perspective, and will certainly prove just as useful to my analysis of vulnerability and disaster.

1 Blaikie et all, At Risk, 4

Bringing my project into focus…

After reading Single’s “The Focus Statement,” I used the recommendations, compared them to my X,Y,Z sentence, and attempted to write my own:

My research project is about the Saltville Dam Disaster of 1924 and the impact it had on the surrounding community. More specifically, I wish to discover if any specific socioeconomic or minority group within the community was disproportionately vulnerable to this event and if so, what contributed to their vulnerability. I believe that using the issue of vulnerability as a lens in this case study will allow me to make conclusions about a broader disaster culture that exists within the United States. I plan to use company records of Mathieson Alkali Works, newspaper articles about the local, state, and national response to the disaster, and census records to glean a better understanding of the demographic composition of the community, the role of the company in the town, and the response in the wake of the disaster.

I look forward to helpful feedback in class to make this focus statement even more “focused”.

A current debate within the field that resonates with my historical research interest is one of defining “disaster”. Though having a working definition of disaster may seem rudimentary for the field of disaster studies, many scholars have taking part in the conversation of what makes a disaster “natural”, “unnatural”, or “technological”. In order to establish these definitions, scholars have asked: “Is a disaster still natural if it has been influenced by human action?” “At which point are disasters no longer natural?” and “Is there such a thing as a natural disaster anymore?” For Ted Steinberg, author of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, the political or corporate elite have intentionally perceived disaster as entirely natural (despite the human manipulations that exacerbate impacts and highlight vulnerabilities) to justify not only response to disaster but also the disaster culture in the United States (a culture of human manipulation of nature and perpetuated vulnerability to disasters).[1] In other words, Steinberg believes that all disaster events in the United States are actually “unnatural” by nature—no pun intended. In “Natural Disaster and provide another definition of a disaster event, explaining “technological catastrophe” as, “events that are human made in that they are accidents, failures, or mishaps involving the technology and manipulation of the natural environment that we have created to support our living.”[2] In ways, this definition is similar to that of Steinberg, however, as the article was written before Acts of God, Steinberg appears to have preferred a different definition of human-manipulated events. “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe” also pays little mind to the subject of human-imposed or created systems of vulnerability, and does not state whether their definition applies internationally or only within certain regions. David K. Chester does not provide a definition for disaster, but rather suggests that perhaps, the “Act of God” defense is not used as a means of justifying corruption, at least not in all parts of the world. By offering up case studies in which religious explanations are used to make sense of disaster in “Theology and Disaster Studies: The Need for Dialogue,” Chester suggests that such explanations cannot be seen as things of the past, but as part of certain cultures, modern-day. He states, “In many disaster prone regions, religion is an essential element of culture and must be carefully considered in the planning process, and not simply dismissed as a symptom of ignorance, superstition and backwardness.”[3]

Those these discussions by scholars from a variety of disciplined may seem to be going on in isolation—indeed, few even reference each other in their work—these different books or articles actually highlight to importance of settling on a specific definition, or definitions, of disaster. One of the most significant reasons for defining disaster is in order to determine blame. If no human, business, or tangible entity can be charged with responsibility for disaster, then the federal government steps in with relief efforts (though they may regardless). If a human or human-established entity is responsible, they may be expected to pay damages. However, in an event like Hurricane Katrina in which both human and natural actors are at work, who is to blame? Who pays?

Historically, disasters have been understood as works of the hand of God or other divine entities or as forces of Mother Nature. However, in a day and age in which it is difficult to delineate a man-made disaster from a natural one, defining and explaining disaster events becomes increasingly complicated and increasingly important. For my own work, I will have to determine which definition of disaster my case study falls under or create a working definition of my own. I will also have to decide if there is a broader disaster culture in the United States and if my own project parallels or connects to said culture in any way.

[1] Ted Steinberg, Acts of God, xiv

[2] Baum et all, “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe,” 334

[3] Chester, “Theology and Disaster Studies: The Need for Dialogue,” 319.

Finding Aids, Secondary Sources, and Revised Questions

Finding Aids:

Initially I had a little difficulty finding a Finding Aid that resulted in any leads. I first tried the Virginia Historical Society website, which provided finding aids for manuscripts and archives, but came across nothing related to my research. I then tried the Virginia Tech Special Collections Manuscript Guide, and came across the papers from a few families that may or may not be of some use. Finally, I went to Google and typed in “Saltville Virginia Finding Aid” and stumbled upon the “Guide to the Smyth County, Virginia Lifetime Collection, 1833-1991” in the Belk Library Special Collections at Appalachian State. There are a number of boxes in the collection that are referred to as “Saltville Papers” and could be very helpful resources. Though I made a little progress, I believe I need to hone my Finding-Aid-finding skills.


Secondary Sources:

Kent, William B. A History of Saltville, Virginia. Radford, Virginia: Commonwealth Press, 1955.

The first source I reviewed this week was A History of Saltville, Virginia, by William B. Kent. The book is broken down thematically, transitioning topic by chapter. Kent prefaces by stating that, “In compiling these notes relative to Saltville, no literary skill is attempted” and that “the book record was requested by those who read some of the stories published in the local newspapers a few years ago”[1] This note leads me to believe that Kent was perhaps a local historian that produced this book purely for the purpose of serving his surrounding community. However, he does acknowledge several others who have written similar histories, and hopefully these names will provide leads that I can follow to larger source bases.

Of particular interest was chapter 23, “A Catastrophe”, in which Kent outlines the Christmas Eve disaster of 1924 and provides a brief picture of the actions taken by witnesses.

Kent does not include notes or a bibliography, but hopefully I will be able to access some of the sources he utilizes by tracking down the contributors from his preface.


Baum, Andrew, Raymond Fleming, and Laura M. Davidson. “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe.” Environment and Behavior 15, no. 3 (May 1, 1983): 333–54.

The second source I read this week was “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe” by Andrew Baum, Raymond Fleming, and Laura M. Davidson. While the authors are actually trained in Medical Psychology, their article is significant in that it introduces and analyzes the concept of “technological catastrophe” in comparison with natural disasters. “Technological catastrophes” are defined as “events that are human made in that they are accidents, failures, or mishaps involving the technology and manipulation of the natural environment that we have created to support our standard of living.[2]” The premise of the article is that these catastrophes are not only inherently different than natural disasters, but also potentially more detrimental to the societies they affect.

The authors are concerned with the psychological effects of such catastrophes, however, for the purposes of my paper, the concept of “technological catastrophe” is useful for describing the type of disaster event that occurred and provides an analytical framework within which I can assess the effects of the disaster on the community.


Revised Question:

Following class discussion last week, I reconsidered the questions I was posing for my project and made a few revisions.

First, I have decided to move forward with the Saltville Disaster of 1924 (although I need to decide on the exact name, as it has gone down in history as “The Christmas Eve Disaster” and “The Palmertown Tragedy”).

Additionally, I considered what Dr. Jones said about making assumptions within our questions. I had not even considered that the simple questions I asked were taking certain aspects of my topic for granted or already presuming certain outcomes of my research.

My initial questions were:

How did the __(name)__ disaster of _(year)_ transform the community of _(area in which disaster occurred)_? Additionally, who was most susceptible to this event and what contributed to their vulnerability? 

After a little review, I have revised them:

How did the Saltville Disaster of 1924 impact Saltville and its surrounding communities? Additionally, were there any specific groups of people that were disproportionately susceptible to this event and if so, what contributed to their vulnerability? 

In discovering the answers to these questions, I will be able to come to conclusions about vulnerability in Saltville before/during/after this disaster. Only once I have answered the questions will I be able to make broader statements about the relationship of the Saltville Disaster to a larger disaster culture.

[1] Kent, preface.

[2] Baum, 334.

Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God–Source Reception

Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (2nd Edition). Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.


Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America discusses disasters in America and argues that the U.S. political economy is often most responsible for the destruction caused by “natural” disasters. Utilizing a series of case studies of different disasters or disaster-prone areas from across the nation, Steinberg calls into question the very essence of natural disasters by claiming that various political and corporate leaders blame nature for these events in order to advance their own agendas. Making no attempt to hide his political agenda, Steinberg asks questions such as: Are disasters acts of God or acts of man? What human social or economic forces are to blame? Who is most vulnerable in disaster events and why? This final question identifies a central theme to Steinberg’s work: vulnerability. In each of his case studies he discusses the socioeconomic or minority group that is most susceptible to the effects of disaster and how local, state, and federal governments have neglected to adequately address this disproportionate exposure.

As it has been almost a decade since the second edition of Acts of God was published, it was not difficult to track down a number of reviews of Steinberg’s work. The book has found scholarly readership in a number of disciplines, and the reception appears to be overwhelmingly positive. In the Journal of American History, historian J. Brooks Flippen states that Steinberg “delves deeper into the question of man’s complicity, with the result an intriguing study that harshly indicts economic and political interests in perpetuating a flawed approach to nature.”[1] Similarly, in Environmental History, Nnted environmental historian Martin Melosi stated that, “The lessons and caveats outlined in this book are well worth heeding.”[2] Beyond the field of history, Acts of God also garnered attention from Georgia State professor Ann-Margaret Esnard in the Journal of the American Planning Association, and David M. Clarke, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oxford in Risk Analysis: An International Journal. Though the majority of reviewers note Steinberg’s direct, no holds barred approach, none seem to fault him for identifying a very significant and very relevant issue concerning disasters in the United States. It is, perhaps, of some interest that I was unable to track down a counterargument or critical response from any of the powerful elite that Steinberg specifically called out. However, this may be an indication that the book has yet to reach a more political audience.

Given the topic matter and Steinberg’s own assessment of his perspective as “a materialist one” that will “no doubt strike some readers as a bit old-fashion in light of the postmodern approaches to history so popular today,” it is difficult to know if Steinberg’s readership reached beyond a scholarly audience.[3] Though Acts of God easily appeals to historians of an urban or environmental background, it additionally warrants attention from academics interested in public policy, risk assessment and management, natural science, meteorology, and urban planning. Furthermore, the book drew the attention of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, which reported that the book offered, “A sobering lesson in humanity’s vulnerability to extreme climatic events, especially the impoverished farmer and the urban poor.”[4] Perhaps this particular review offered a platform from which Steinberg’s book could be perceived as accessible to a much broader audience.

According to Google Scholar alone, Acts of God has been cited 321 times in both journals and books from a variety of disciplines. Interestingly, a large number of these references have been made only within the past five years. While a Web of Science search did not provide any useful information outside of book reviews, the results from Google Scholar alone illustrate that Steinberg’s work is still powerful and relevant in scholarly discourse on disasters.

Like other scholars, it is easy for me to see where Steinberg’s work and interpretation could become a vital part of my analysis. As my project examines the transformative potential of disasters on communities, Acts of God provides a number of more widely recognized events that I might draw connections to. Even more significantly, Steinberg’s discussion of risk and vulnerability will prove especially useful in my attempt to answer questions of vulnerability concerning the disaster I choose to analyze. Perhaps after conducting research I will find that even seemingly small, isolated disaster events have parallels or connect to the larger disaster culture and issue of misplaced blame that Steinberg discusses in his book (and I suspect this will be the case). I am particularly interested to see if the fingerprints of human action or manipulation are as evident in my own project as they are in any of the case studies that the author presents. In addition to the utility of Steinberg’s theoretical framework, I also plan to mine his bibliography for other fruitful resources. I am already aware that he refers to a number of monologues that cover specific events, and I surmise that assessing the perspectives that each of those authors use might reveal an angle that I could consider in my own work.

Ultimately, I believe that Steinberg’s work will be an absolutely essential resource for the purposes of my own project. It was, in fact, Acts of God that introduced me to scholarship on the issue of vulnerability concerning disasters in the United States. While I will have to be careful not to let the author’s unapologetic bias sway me when approaching my own case study, I am grateful to Steinberg for providing strong perspectives for me to consider when conducting my research.

[1] Flippen, J. Brooks. Review of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, by Ted Steinberg, The Journal of American History 89, no. 1 (June 2002), 322-323.

[2] Melosi, Martin V. Review of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America by Ted Steinberg. Environmental History 7, no. 1 (January 2002), 137-138.

[3] Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America 2nd ed. (Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, 2006), xiv.

[4] Steinberg, front cover.

Asking the real questions…

While mulling over class discussion and what question I was ultimately trying to answer in conducting research and producing my thesis, I returned to the extremely helpful “XYZ” sentence.

During our exercise in class I came up with:

I am writing about the Saltville Disaster of 1924,

because I want to find out how this particular disaster impacted a community,

so that I can help others understand how disasters shape human environments and additionally, why some socioeconomic groups are more vulnerable to disaster than others.

***At the point of conducting this exercise, I was not entirely sure if the Saltville disaster was the one I was definitely going with. To be perfectly honest, I am still not entirely sure, as there is very little literature to be found on the topic. I am currently trying to find newspapers on this particular disaster (and a few others) to make the final decision on which disaster I will research.***

However, regardless of the disaster, parts “y” and “z” of my sentence remain the same. The reason I want to study disasters is to discover the ways in which these events transformed the communities in which they occurred. What businesses, residences, or infrastructure was damaged or destroyed? How did the community respond in the wake of the disaster?

Additionally, I want to analyze the vulnerability of the community that was affected—who was most vulnerable? Was a certain socioeconomic or racial group impacted disproportionately by the event, and if so, why? What can the vulnerability of individuals or groups of people within this event reveal about a larger trend of vulnerability to disaster in the United States?

So, after much brainstorming an a few more attempts at “XYZ” sentences, I believe my first effort at my research question consists of two components:

How did the __(name)__ disaster of _(year)_ transform the community of _(area in which disaster occurred)_? Additionally, who was most susceptible to this event and what contributed to their vulnerability? 

In the case of the Saltville Disaster of 1924, I would want to know how the breaking of the muck dam and the subsequent flood transformed the Saltville community. What buildings were destroyed? Who were the 19 people killed, and what made them especially vulnerable to this disaster?

This research question is significant for a number of reasons. First, humans all over the earth have been impacted by natural disasters throughout history. However, human manipulation on the environment creates the potential and often the systems that result in additional disasters. In the event of both natural and unnatural disasters, certain socioeconomic or racial groups have borne the brunt of the physical or financial damage. In events such as the Saltville Disaster, it is important to consider the impact of human action as well as those who paid the heaviest cost. I believe that seemingly isolated disasters such as these are actually part of a larger disaster culture that exists in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere) in which human action often exacerbates or causes disasters, and in which certain groups are more susceptible than others to the destruction.

Hopefully I will finalize the specific disaster I will focus on very soon. I definitely recognize the necessity of settling on a topic early so that I am able to create a sufficient proposal by the end of the semester. That being said, I also do not want to settle on a disaster that is not “manageable”, and therefore have been moving forward with research on a number of disasters while meanwhile collecting secondary sources that could easily relate to the topic of disaster studies or be utilized in whichever disaster I choose.

Doing some source-searching

To conduct the preliminary research for my topic, I decided to use the WorldCat, WorldCat Dissertations and Theses from WorldCat, and America: History and Life databases. Even when entering the same keywords, each database provided me with different sources (which, I suppose, is part of the benefit of using a variety of databases). WorldCat provided me with a lot of sources that would probably offer contextual information for the type of project I am considering. WorldCat Dissertations helped me find some works produced by other Masters or Ph.D. students that have focused on natural disasters. America: History and Life search results were similar to those offered by WorldCat, though I have to say I find the WorldCat database to be easier to search through.

Because I still have not decided on one particular disaster but am leaning toward flood disasters or floods as a result of dam failure, I used keyword combinations such as “dam” + “disaster” or “flood” + “disaster”. In every database, I found that these keywords provided greater results than when I used specific events as keywords, i.e. “mill river dam” + “disaster”.

The search process did not necessarily change the ways I have been thinking about my research project, but it did give me a better idea of what information is currently circulating. While part of me eagerly anticipates the prospect of tapping into a specific disaster that has not been previously covered, I am also increasingly aware of how difficult it may be to find secondary sources on such a topic. However, I was surprised at how much contextual information was readily available on disasters, though I will not be sure which of this information will be useful until I determine the exact perspective that I will use in my project. I believe the next step will be to take a closer look at the dissertations I added to my Zotero, as these will reveal how scholars have been approaching similar topics or disasters in their respective works, and perhaps reveal a perspective that I can utilize in my own.

“Highlights” of Reading, Notetaking, and Source-finding

As I stated in my first blog post, after a meeting with Dr. David Cline, I felt as if he would be the best fit for my thesis advisor. I believe that he will be invested in my success, and provided useful information on how to move closer to a decision between my two topics. One of his recommendations included finding a dissertation I had stumbled upon when writing an article-length paper on the counterculture of Floyd County in order to determine what angle the author took. I did end up finding the dissertation, and the author had actually done an excellent job of piecing together the very project that I myself had been considering. At this point, I am going to attempt to meet with Dr. Cline once more to discuss any other possible perspective that I could take on the counterculture topic before scrapping it and moving forward with disasters.

During the same meeting, Dr. Cline and I discussed the other topic I was considering for my project as well. I had yet to decide on any specific disaster at the point of our meeting, however, he recommended that I do some preliminary research to see if I might come across a disaster of particular interest. He also brought up a disaster that occurred in Massachusetts that he had done preliminary research on earlier in his career. The disaster occurred when a dam burst, flooding a lower-income area of a town. We discussed how disasters such as these brought up questions of vulnerability and blame, and how these might be perspectives to consider when organizing my own project. Finally, Dr. Cline asked if I had heard of Matthew Mulcahy, author of Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783. I had read Mulcahy’s book for one of my historiographical essays last semester, and was actually pleasantly taken by the way he structured his argument and the themes he considered. Dr. Cline recommended that I return to the book in order to analyze the author’s methodology, organization, and conclusions, to see if I might consider structuring my project in a similar fashion. While Mulcahy’s work focuses on a much broader scale both geographically and chronologically than my own project would, his work is one of the only that I have come across that considers the impact of disaster on both the natural and human environment.

An attempt at a “citeable note” from Mulcahy’s book:

Mulcahy (2006): focuses on analyzing how larger social, political, and economic circumstances shaped the effect of hurricanes in the Greater British Caribbean; one of the only works currently published that considers the multifaceted impact of natural disaster on a region from an analytical, historical perspective.

For the interactive reading and notetaking exercise, I chose to read “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe” by Andrew Baum, Raymond Fleming, and Laura Davidson. This article should provide some context for a project on disasters that have been caused/exacerbated by human action. The most notable difference between conducting this exercise and how I usually read articles and take notes was that I had to actively remind myself not to take notes until the end. In doing so, I believe I was much more attentive and deliberate in my reading, as I knew I had to remember the key points and themes of the work. While this exercise pushed me out of my traditional reading and writing comfort zone, I can already see how it will be a more effective form of researching. I will save a considerable amount of time by waiting until the end of a work to jot down notes, and I will be forced to retain only the essential information, as opposed to anything and everything that catches my eye. One aspect of interactive reading and notetaking that I anticipate struggling with is the recommendation to abandon the highlighter. While I agree that using a highlighter has often led to me recording and highlighting frivilously, I have also found that I remember the highlighted text much more readily. Perhaps in reading more deliberately, I can also learn to highlight more intentionally, therefore improving my interactive research without abandoning the beloved highlighter.