Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Eloquence Beyond Words


The Great Easter 1913 national calamity inspired artists to depict fundamental truths in editorial cartoons more powerful and pithy than words or photographs

A picture is worth 1,000 words, estimates the cliché—and sometimes that is actually true. Immediately after the dozen or more violent Easter Sunday 1913 tornadoes ripped through the cities of Omaha, Council Bluffs, Terre Haute and 

"A Helping Hand," published in the March 31, 1913 issue of the Rochester Evening Times in upstate New York, expressed both sympathy and the means for others in the nation to aid the Easter 1913 flood victims
elsewhere in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, and other states, followed by the Noachian flooding across a dozen other states, editorial cartoons about the natural disaster peppered newspapers nationwide for weeks—often on the center front page directly under the banner headline. 

These editorial cartoons often expressed some overarching fundamental truth that escaped the daily reporting (which was focused on the details of individual news stories breaking that day) or even photographs (which captured one specific tragic moment)—sometimes without using a single word. Here are 20 from 11 different newspapers.

One of the first cartoons to be published—not 24 hours after the devastating Omaha tornado—was “Our heartfelt sympathy, neighbor,” on the front page of the Monday, March 24 issue of the St. Joseph News-Press the very next day, 
depicting a man (not labeled, but doubtless representing St. Joseph, Missouri) comforting a weeping woman labeled Omaha. That sympathy was more like shaken empathy: about 8:30 PM Easter night, a bit over two hours after the Omaha tornado, another violent F4  twister 200 yards wide cut a swath of destruction 45 miles long through rural Missouri and Iowa, killing 2 and injuring 8, passing just north of St. Joseph. In other words, St. Joseph itself had just dodged a bullet.

One of the most famous cartoons to emerge was published on the front page of the Omaha Daily Bee the following day, Tuesday, March 25. Called simply 
“The Tornado,” it depicted the death-dealing Omaha tornado as a human skull. This image was widely reprinted at the time and also during the 2013 centennial, notably for the Nebraska PBS documentary Devil Clouds.

A feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces was expressed differently in various cartoons. “A Disaster,” published on page 5 of the
Wednesday, March 26 issue of the Chicago Tribune, conveys as sense of heaven-delivered arbitrariness with a finger pointing toward Earth as if to say ‘your turn’. 

That same day, another image “Trapped,” depicts a vicious animal trap set in the midst of an unidentified city (presumably Omaha, although the image 
could also refer to Council Bluffs and Terre Haute as well), published on the page 6 of the March 26 issue of Missouri’s Kansas City Journal.
 
The next day, a giant genie-like figure labeled “The Elements” was outright 
laughing at man’s helplessness in the Chicago Tribune cartoon “How Great is Man” on page 7 of the March 27 issue.

By then, the floodwaters were reaching peak record-setting heights in Ohio and Indiana, and buildings were burning in Dayton, Rochester, and other cities. So artists were incorporating those catastrophes as well. Continuing the theme of the supreme indifference of the gods is “When Man Learns 
Humility!”on the front page of the Omaha Daily Bee of Saturday, March 29, depicting a beautiful but callous goddess upending a giant urn of water flooding away houses and tiny people.

The Grim Reaper made his appearance in many cartoons, such as in “The 
Conqueror” on the front page of the March 27 issue of the St. Joseph Gazette, where he looms over flooded homes.

And unmistakable are his skeletal hand and scythe in “Wind, flood, and fire” 
published on page 6 of the March 28 issue of Missouri’s Kansas City Journal.

He is also hinted at in the two cloaked figures labeled “Famine” and “The 
Looter” in the chilling cartoon “On the Heels of Disaster” published in the March 28 issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times.

Utter bewilderment and appeal of the victims is wordlessly expressed in the 
bereft husband and wife of “The Deluge,” published on the front page of the March 27 Cleveland Plain Dealer.

That same wordless despair was depicted in the implied widowhood of the lone female figure standing amidst wreckage with her small daughter and infant in the cartoon “Home” on the front page of the March 26 issue of the Omaha Daily Bee…

...as well as in the stooped shoulders of the elderly farmer surveying wreckage in “Have to Start All Over Again,” published in the March 30 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

But late that first week, the character of the cartoons begins to change. In one of my all-time favorite cartoons, “Coming!” undeservedly buried on page 14 of the March 27 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Uncle Sam is diving 
straight into the floodwaters to rescue drowning Dayton—powerfully expressing response to President Woodrow Wilson’s appeal to the nation for aid and also his dispatching of the Secretary of War along with Army, Navy, and Red Cross personnel.

That same day in the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times, a similar theme was expressed in “A Prompt Response,” depicting Uncle Sam standing up and 
strongly rowing a boat named “The Nation” laden with supplies toward a grief-stricken and stranded woman and her daughter.

Around this same time, the editorial cartoons also began to express encouragement to buck up, not admit defeat, and start reconstruction to return bigger and better—and for those less afflicted to contribute to the aid of those 
suffering devastation. For example, in “Looking Ahead,” published on the front page of the October 28 issue of the Omaha Daily Bee, two figures stand amid wreckage: a female figure labeled “Purpose” shaking hands with a determined carpenter, his toolbox labeled “Omaha.”

In “One Touch of Nature,” published on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Saturday, March 29, a prosperous business man is tossing a bulging money bag into a chest labeled Ohio Flood Fund alongside a 
careworn woman giving two coins—clearly an allusion to the Biblical (New Testament) parable of the widow’s mite. And the chest, I wager, is a visual reference to Cleveland’s innovation in federated giving, the Community Chest, founded just the month before and undergoing its first major test in the monumental 1913 flood, Ohio’s worst-ever weather disaster.

The next month, some of the editorial cartoons take on an air of defiance. Notable is “The Spirit of the Hour” published on the front page of the Dayton 
Daily News  on April 10, where an outsized muscular workman (dressed like a nineteenth-century pioneer) labeled “Dayton” is declaring “I’ll lick you yet!” to a wreckage-covered Neptune-like spirit labeled “The River” which is shrinking back apprehensively.

The next day, April 11, the Dayton Daily News published “The Reminiscence Club” on its first page, depicting another pioneer-dressed figure labeled “Dayton” rushing away, stating, “Sorry to leave you, gentlemen, but I must be 
getting back to work,” leaving behind three figures sitting on fresh lumber, two of whom are labeled “Noah” and “Johnstown,” (this last clearly a reference to the Johnstown Flood of 1889—see “An Unnecessary Tragedy”).

The cartoons didn’t stop in mid-April, nor are these the only ones, by any means—I have many more and am on the lookout for others, as there were likely hundreds drawn and published. A fitting conclusion to this sequence is 
the cartoon “The Spirit of the Pioneer” published on the first anniversary of the Easter tornadoes on March 22, 1914 in the Omaha World-Herald, depicting a determined carpenter holding a hammer and blueprints, with other homes being reconstructed behind him.

© 2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Tragedy at Terre Haute

Further reading
Bell, Trudy E. “The Devastating Nebraska-Iowa-Missouri Tornadoes of 1913: Harbingers of the U.S.’s Now-Forgotten Most Widespread Natural Disaster.” Unpublished paper presented at the Missouri Valley History Conference, February 25, 2007. Text and slides downloadable from my 1913 flood web page (from column at far left).

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Explosion at Equality


On Sunday, April 6, 1913, the swollen Ohio River backed more than 20 miles up Illinois’s Saline River, flooding a coal mine that residents of Equality were desperately trying to save—exploding the mine

At an ominous low underground rumbling that feels like an earthquake, someone yells: “Get back—run for your lives!”

Ka-BOOM!

With a roar almost beyond comprehension, a mighty geyser erupts from the main shaft of the Equality coal mine, the filthy floodwater propelling concrete blocks, narrow-gauge railroad mine cars, wheels, engines, and cages higher 
Second geyser erupting from the Equality coal mine was less than a third as high as the first. Credit: Coal Age, May 10, 1913, page 728
than 500 feet into the air. Men scatter at a dead run, desperate to avoid the tonnage of water, stone, dirt, and machinery raining down as far as a hundred yards away from the mine, crashing to the ground with enough force to bury themselves.

Twenty-two minutes after the outburst, a second geyser shoots 150 feet into the air. 

Eight minutes later a third geyser erupts, perhaps 75 feet high. Numerous others follow, each lower than the preceding one, until about 5 PM when the eruptions reduce to a succession of huge air bubbles loudly issuing from the nearly filled mine shaft. 

The angry bubbling persists more than a week until the destroyed mine completely fills with water lying quietly and glistening with an oily sheen, looking like a caved-in well about 40 feet across.  

What happened? And how could the devastating Great Easter 1913 flood trigger a mine explosion?

Mining coal in Illinois
Coal mining District 5 is
at the bottom right
Lying under more than 60 percent of area of the state of Illinois are vast fields of coal. In 1913, Illinois was third only to Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the nation’s coal production, the state providing 4 percent of the world’s supply. The coal industry, which employed 80,000 men, was among the most important industries in Illinois. Although fewer than 30 coal mines are being worked in Illinois today, some 7,400 operated in the past.

The mining town of Equality lay on the north bank of the Saline River, about 20 miles west of the Ohio River, on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad line. In 1913, the Equality coal mine—which changed names five times through a succession of 10 owners between when its shaft was sunk in 1882 and its closure in 1930—was owned by the Gallatin Coal and Coke Company. It was one of the older and smaller mines in state District V in the very southern and eastern part of the state, which encompassed Seam 5 through Gallatin and Saline Counties. 

The vertical mine shaft opening was on the western edge of town, about
Ohio River is at the right, Equality is in the middle, and
Harrisburg is at the far left; map is about 30 miles across
1,000 feet from the Saline River. It was on the top of a rise, with its air shaft opening in ground 13 feet lower to the west. So far, its elevation had saved the main shaft from flooding—just barely in the case of the major 1884 flood just two years after the shaft was sunk, when floodwaters approached to within just a foot of the opening. But even a near miss was a relief: the 1884 flood was the greatest ever experienced in Illinois memory, and it was widely felt that a greater flood was unlikely.

Headwater and backwater
But then the skies opened across the Midwest on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913. Sheets of rain kept falling and falling through that week. Equality—and the rest of Illinois—received only about half the 10+ inches of maximum rainfall experienced by Ohio and Indiana in those four or five days (Harrisburg about five miles west of Equality recorded an unofficial total of 6 inches). Even so, five or six inches of rainfall in less than a week is a very sodden week. 

Modern plotting of precipitation causing the Great Easter 1913 flood reveals that Harrisburg's unofficial measurement of 6 inches of rain was accurate.
Beginning Easter Monday, the Saline River rapidly rose from runoff from all over southern Illinois, peaking midweek about 15 feet above normal. Then it started falling as the excessive rainfall and runoff discharged downstream, toward the Ohio River 20 miles east.

But the Ohio River itself was swelling from torrential floodwaters pouring into it from tributaries in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. The biggest was the Wabash, whose source at the western edge of Ohio was right in the band of maximum intense rainfall. Worse, the mighty Wabash—augmented by runoff from across much of Indiana—joined the swollen Ohio River just north of the Illinois river community of Shawneetown, about 20 miles east of Equality.

As the flooded Ohio River grew deeper and wider, it stopped the drainage of 
the Saline River. Worse, the mixed waters of the two rivers began backing up the Saline River. The Saline River’s fall stopped and began rising again, virtually as fast as it had risen a few days earlier, only this time showing no signs of stopping at its previous peak. The water kept getting higher and wider.

By the end of March, it was clear to the Equality mine owners, workers, and town residents alike that the old 1884 flood record was on its way to be broken. And if the mine were flooded, many men living in Equality would be thrown out of work for months, unable to provide for their families.

A large crew of men hastily began building a massive makeshift levee surrounding the mine opening. For  75 feet on each of four sides (a total of 300 feet), they trenched the topsoil down to the dense clay packed the trench with moist clay, tamping it well to form a dense barrier that they hoped would be impervious to erosive undercurrents. On either side of that filled-in trench, they built two heavy timber retaining walls six feet apart, filling the gap between them with well-tamped moist clay.

Collapse and explode
By April 1, the mine was surrounded by flood backwater, which just kept rising. It hampered the levee construction because all supplies now had to be boated a few hundred feet to the workers. By April 2, part of the wooden cribbing that reinforced the vertical walls in the mine shaft gave way on the east side of the shaft about 20 feet below the opening, letting in a flood of water and carrying away part of the levee. The miners, now helped by every able-bodied boy and man from Equality, stopped the break. 

But the next day, old and weakened cribbing on the west side of the shaft also gave way even more disastrously, taking a different part of the levee into the shaft. Some of the surface also caved in, opening the shaft 10 or 12 feet wider. Again, without missing a beat, all the men redoubled their efforts and shored up that breach as well. 

By now the floodwaters were a good five feet higher than the 1884 record at 
Flooding of the Saline River at Harrisburg, 5-10 miles west
upstream of Equality, just off the map at lower right.
Credit: Coal Age, May 1913
the mouth of the mine. The town of Equality was inundated, too, with some 300 residents driven from their homes and doubling up with friends and neighbors. But dealing with the flooding in town fell to the wives and children. For the next two days, the men—desperate to save their families’ livelihoods—kept piling sandbags atop the levee, daring finally to admit a hope that maybe, just maybe, by dint of extraordinary effort, it might be possible to keep the levee higher than the still-rising backwater. 

Then, on Sunday morning, April 6, someone noticed a very small stream rushing in from the south side of the levee at a point about 10 feet below the surface of the water. Despite all efforts to stop the leak with sandbags, the stream grew ever larger. As extensive caving was also discovered near the powerhouse 50 feet away, the danger was clear. Everyone was ordered away from the buildings.

At 9:28 AM, the levee collapsed with a mighty inrush. The velocity of the river water into the mine shaft was so great it swept mine cars, barrels of oil, concrete piers, and tons of rubbish ahead of it from hundreds of yards around—the suction pulling out the end of the engine and boiler room and blacksmith shop. Although the vertical hoisting shaft was filled in an hour and 22 minutes, for the next five hours water continued to flood into all the mine’s underground rooms about 50 feet below. 

Also trapped was all the air that had been in the mine, and which had been 
Equality coal mine is large yellow area near center; main
shaft is at lower right closest to Saline River; air shaft is
a bit left (west of it). Harrisburg is off map to left.
(Name of mine is the last one given by its last owner)
Credit: Illinois State Geological Survey
unable to escape through the flooded air shaft. As more water poured in, the air was compressed under ever increasing water weight and pressure.

At about 3:25 PM, the mine seemed almost quiet, and was surrounded by sightseers standing on the gob pile (waste rock from digging the mine) or other higher ground gawking at the destruction.
Then, according to the 1913 Annual Coal Report of Illinois, at 3:50 PM, with what sounded like a tremendous explosion, 

…the air [compressed] rebounded with a force that was almost beyond comprehension. It threw out mine cars, cages, huge concrete blocks, sheave wheels, engines, and completely destroyed the entire top works. Water, stone, dirt, and machinery were thrown into the air to an estimated height of 500 feet. The sheave wheels, which had gone down the shaft together with the headframe, were blown out and fell over a hundred yards from the pit head, completely burying themselves in the hard earth.
Somehow Equality’s physician Lucien W. Gordon had presence of mind to set up a camera, in time to catch the second geyser. In contrast to the official reports, Gordon—who compared the height of the geysers to nearby objects—estimated the first geyser to shoot 600 feet into the air (instead of 500) and the second to reach about 260 feet high (instead of 150).

Rebirth at Equality
The Equality coal mine was totally destroyed, with the damage estimated by various sources at $25,000 or $30,000 in 1913 dollars (probably equivalent to half a million or a million dollars today).

Although the 1913 flood had suddenly idled the miners, there was still work to be done. After detailed study of the mine maps, the Gallatin company engineers felt that a new shaft could be driven not too far from the old 
Equality mine surface works before and after the compressed-air rebound geyser. Credit: Coal Age
destroyed shaft. In November, 1913, sinking began as well as pumping out the oily floodwaters. Full dewatering took more nearly half a year, until the end of April 1914. The new shaft was opened, landings, entries, airways and roads built for connecting with the old shaft and works. The new shaft was much better constructed than the older one, as it was lined with reinforced concrete instead of timber, and other structures were made of steel. The old air shaft was also lined with concrete, and the surface works replaced with buildings and equipment that were strictly fireproof. The Equality coal mine was reopened within a year and worked until 1930.

Air power
Such explosive rebound of air compressed by water flooding into an underground mine is rare, but not unheard of. The geysers from the Equality mine were neither the first nor the last in the history of mining. Three weeks after Gordon’s spectacular account of the geyser at Equality was published in the May 10, 1913 issue of Coal Age, a general manager of another mining company wrote a letter to the editor recounting a similar event a few years earlier in a mine in Ellsworth, Pennsylvania. A still earlier incident from 1880 happened closer to home in a flooded mine owned by Bernhard Blume in Pinckneyville, Illinois. 

A truly spectacular example of explosive rebound happened almost exactly four years after the 1913 flooding of Equality, this time in Juneau, Alaska, in the Treadwell gold mine on April 21, 1917. Unlike the shallow coal mine at Equality, the Treadwell mine was deep—some 2,800 feet—and the prize was gold. It was a huge operation that employed some 2,000 men. The mine was very close to the Gastineau Channel, the channel between Juneau on the mainland and Douglas Island. A hole that formed at one side of the mine let an estimated 3 million tons of seawater rush in in a mere 3.5 hours. The last men were just being rescued when water and rock started cascading down the main shaft. In less than an hour, a huge geyser of seawater erupted 200 feet into the air.

Even more recently, something similar happened in South Crofty Tin Mine in Cornwall in July 1998 . Whether a geyser forms or not, the floodwater discharged during rebound is often polluted and toxic, so mining engineers have devoted significant effort to trying to predict mine rebound, which can be a major issue especially for abandoned works, which are no longer dewatered through pumping and left untended. 

©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: The Great Easter 1913 Disaster in Editorial Cartoons

Selected References
A Compilation of the Reports of the Mining Industry of Illinois from The Earliest Records to the Close of the Year 1930. Department of Mines and Minerals. Springfield, Ill. For the 1880 account of compressed air rebound in the mine of Bernhard Blume in Pinckneyville, see Appendix C, page 175 “A Peculiar Tragedy of 1880” by Stanley Smith. This anecdote is preserved in several other places on the web as well, generally without proper attribution.
 
Andros, S.O. Coal Mining in Illinois. Bulletin 13. Illinois Coal Mining Investigations. University of Illinois. Urbana. 1915.

Gordon, Lucien W. “Phenomenal Outburst of Water at Equality.” Coal Age 3(19): 728–729. May 10, 1913.

King, Mary Lou and Jim Geraghty. Treadwell Mine Historic Trail. Walking Tour Map & Historic Guide. Juneau–Douglas Mining District. 2007. Page 8. 
 
“Lucien Winslow Gordon, M.D.” Memoirs of the Lower Ohio Valley. Personal and  Genealogical with Portraits. Madison, Wis.: Federal Publishing Co. 1905. Volume II. Pp. 327–329.

Morris, S. P. “Roughing It for the Red Cross.” The American Red Cross Magazine 8(3): 46–50, July 1913.

“Mine Destroyed at Equality.” Thirty-Second Annual Coal Report of Illinois. State Mining Board. 1913. Pages 248–249. This article was reprinted under the byline of inspector Paul Roebottom and the title “Flooded Coal Mine in Illinois” in the April 1914 issue of The Colliery Engineer 34: 570–571.

Obrad, Jennifer M., and C. Chenoweth. Directory of Coal Mines in Illinois 7.5-Minute Quadrangle Series. Equality Quadrangle. Gallatin and Saline Counties. Department of Natural Resources. Illinois State Geological Survey. 2005 (revised 2009).

“Old Mine Reopened.” Thirty-third Annual Coal Report of Illinois. State Mining Board. 1914. Pages 238–239.
Special Correspondent. “Flood Protection at the Illinois Mines.” Coal Age 3(22): 828–830. May 31, 1913.

Younger, P.L. and R. Adams. Predicting Mine Water Rebound. R&D Technical  Report W179. Environment Agency. Bristol. U.K. 1999. 

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Floods and Other Disasters: Knowing More, Yet Losing More


Despite more knowledge and ability to manipulate nature, we have increased our exposure and susceptibility to natural hazards. Why? Distinguished Carolina Professor Susan L. Cutter explores our current hazardscape

[Historical natural disasters reveal that the severity of the human toll could be lessened—if society and technologists would take heed. But despite the fact that the Federal government handles flood insurance, there is no Federal national database collating data from past disasters that could inform current policies! So pointed out Distinguished Carolina Professor and geographer Dr. Susan L. Cutter from the University of South Carolina in the 2014 Gilbert F. White Lecture in the Geographical Sciences given at the National Academy of Sciences on December 4. Using field research from Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012), Cutter examined societal factors making people and places vulnerable to hazards, why hazards vary with location, and what must change if people and property are to be genuinely protected. 
Relevance to the unusually powerful Great Easter 1913 winter storm system and flood? A century later, that natural disaster—which killed some 1,000 people and wreaked more property damage than Hurricane Katrina centered on the industrial northis still the flood of record in Indiana and Ohio as well as in parts of a dozen other states. Climate models predict more intense rainfall in the Midwest in the coming decades, including the effects of Gulf and Atlantic hurricanes penetrating further inland. Indeed, 70+mph winds from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused so much damage in Ohio that Ohio itself was made eligible for Federal disaster relief. If climate models prove accurate, intense concentrated rainfall of the scale of the mammoth 1913 storm system and flood today—whether from hurricane or from winter storm system—would be devastating to key national infrastructure. Below, with Cutter's permission, is a summary of her talk “In Harm’s Way: Why More Knowledge is Not Reducing Losses" along with some of her slides.]

We are on a “disaster loss up escalator” in the United States, declared Susan L. Cutter, Distinguished Carolina Professor at University of South Carolina. Despite the fact that we know more today about hazards than we did half a century ago, the statistics are clear: annual U.S. losses to natural disasters have nearly tripled—from under $25 per capita (2009 dollars) in the 1960s to more than $70 per capita in the 2010s (2009 dollars), despite the fact that population itself has doubled.

Why is that? Some explanations are clear: because of greater population density and greater personal/business wealth, smaller-magnitude weather events can produce bigger losses. But it is also clear that intense weather events are increasing in frequency, and that people are building in more high-hazard areas (in part because often they have desirable views, say, of coastline beaches). But the real explanation goes deeper. “In many ways, we have a failure to act to help reduce loss,” Cutter said.

Cutter suggests three causes of the hazard loss paradox:  lack of loss accounting, lack of understanding science, and lack of the use of science in public policy and practice. 

No national database of disaster losses
“We don’t have a national database of hazard event and losses in the United States!” Cutter pointed out, ticking off her first major point about causes for the hazard loss paradox. “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a database, but it is only weather. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has some data, but it’s inconsistent. Every Federal agency has some data, but it’s not in one place, and [no single database covers] all hazards.”

The absence of a comprehensive Federal national database of natural disaster losses is not a new concern. In 1999, Cutter recounted, the National Academy of Sciences produced two separate studies followed by a third in 2001, all calling for disaster loss accounting and pointing up the need for such a national database. Fourteen years later, the situation has not changed. That being said, she noted, no other nation has a national database, either.

These three National Academy of Sciences reports from 1999 and 2001
all called for a Federal national database on natural disaster losses.
That begs a key question: “How can you reduce losses when you don’t know where the hazards are, or when, where, and how much?” Cutter asked. “How do you begin to tackle the problem of reduction when you don’t know the baseline?”

A private database does exist at the University of South Carolina. Called the Spatial Hazard Events and Losses Database for the United States (SHELDUS), it has more than 800,000 records from 1960 through 2013, geocoded to the county level across the nation, drawing on information from NOAA, USGS, the Department of Agriculture, and other sources of loss information. Until mid-2014, it was searchable online free of charge. Because no Federal support exists to maintain SHELDUS, however, “we had no option but to change to a fee basis,” Cutter said.

Second, she pointed out, hazard science knows some things well. “We know that mitigation works: for example, putting hurricane straps between the rafters and the roof makes a difference in a high wind environment,” Cutter said. “We also know that mitigation pays: every dollar in mitigation spent saves four dollars in losses.” Much is known about monitoring, about the physical basis for extreme events, and about how many people live in high-hazard areas. Forecasts are getting ever better for the timing of hurricanes and impact areas.  
SHELDUS, the only database for U.S. hazard losses, is
not Federally supported.
Other aspects of hazard science are known less well. Key among them are how, when, and where to anticipate complex events or cascading events. “What is the surprise in the system that we don’t know and can’t imagine?” Cutter asked. “We know that there are incredible interdependencies between infrastructure systems, human systems, and natural systems, but we are not sure about the connectivity among them in all places for all things.” 

Also less well known is the effectiveness of existing policies and practices in hazards management, “in large part because we have not done a review or audit of these policies and programs to see if they actually are reducing loss,” she said. Vulnerability is an important component of disaster risk, “but we don’t know how to measure it” nor how to quantify how historic or antecedent social conditions that either increase or decrease vulnerabilities and exposure. 

One thing is clear, however, she emphasized: “Multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives are key in hazard science.”

Social vulnerability index
A geographer’s view of vulnerability and resilience differs from an engineer’s or a hydrologist’s because the focus is on “how vulnerability and resilience varies among social groups and varies geographically,” Cutter said. The goal of such studies “is to make a difference: to take the science and to put it into practice.” Over the past two decades, she and her colleagues have focused on ways to objectively measure social vulnerability, resilience, and recovery.

For measuring vulnerability, they devised a social vulnerability index (SoVI, pronounced SOE-VEE): “the identification of quantifiable attributes of populations that make them more or less susceptible to harm, and mapping them to look at geographic distribution,” she explained. 

Interpreting the map, however, requires a deeper, detailed understanding of the social geography across the country. For example, Cutter noted, in the Mississippi Valley, “vulnerability is related to female head of households, poverty populations, and African Americans. That’s very different from what you see in Arizona, where vulnerability is related to Native American reservations. Both are different from what you see in eastern Kentucky, where vulnerability is related to white, less educated, poverty populations. One of my favorite examples [of the need for detailed local knowledge] is Nebraska and parts of North and South Dakota,” she continued. “Although social vulnerability in parts of South Dakota is related to Native American lands, in other areas of the Great Plains vulnerability is related to in situ aging of the female population on the family farm, living on a fixed income with very little resource base or flexibility should that disaster hit. In many instances, the husband has died; the widow has stayed on the farm but the children have moved to the cities to seek employment, so resources are highly constrained.

“We’ve done a lot of testing,” Cutter continued. The social vulnerability index “works in counties, in census tracts, and across different nations.” It is now gaining traction in policy circles as a way of planning how one might distribute or position resources for aid, response, and recovery. “During Hurricane Sandy, we got a call from the regional office of FEMA, asking us to do a run on SoVI for the three-state area because they wanted to see where they might need to deploy resources and target efforts,” she recounted. The index “gives governments a way of prioritizing that they would not have had before.”

Quantifying resilience
Cutter quoted the National Academy of Sciences definition of resilience as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from or more successfully adapt to actual or potential adverse events.” The concept of resilience has gained
keen interest not only in the U.S. Federal government but also in the United Kingdom and the United Nations. Meantime, the Rockefeller Foundation has embarked on a major effort to help cities develop disaster resilience and the National Academies has developed a Resilient America Roundtable to help communities develop a culture of resilience

“Everyone is talking about resilience as a way of moving from a focus on disaster risk reduction to a broader framing in sustainability,” Cutter observed. “The question is: how do we know if these efforts will be successful? We don’t have metrics: We don’t know how to measure resilience, and we don’t have a baseline. If we don’t have a baseline to know how resilient we are now in the absence of these policy innovations, how are we going to know whether or not they are effective?” Moreover, in the literature, Cutter said, the issue becomes resilience of what? and resilience for whom? Thus, attempts at developing metrics for resilience have been inconsistent with one another. “You can look at social resilience, or institutional resilience, or community capital. But across the nation, each of these different types of resilience has a very different geography.”

Measuring recovery
“Recovery is a natural laboratory, where we can actually see how vulnerability and resilience influence the capacity of communities to respond after an event,” Cutter noted. And research questions abound: Does the social transformation of the landscape follow its same trajectory after a disaster as beforehand? Is recovery spatially or temporally uniform? Or are there persistent inequalities in the recovery process? Answering such questions requires some objective way of measuring recovery.

“Well, being geographers and liking to go out into the field after disasters, we’ve developed a number of ways to do this,” Cutter recounted. One “crude but useful” technique was repeat photography: returning to the same locations every six months to photograph the same homes and other structures to document their stage of recovery. The photographs could be categorized using such objective evidence as debris removal, demolition, or rebuilding, and a property coarsely scored as showing no recovery, 25%, 50%, 75%, or full
recovery. Then, “because we [geographers] are very good at all things spatial, you can then take those points and create a surface [map] representing both the spatial and the temporal change,” Cutter said. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, because so many people were rushing to New Orleans, the team decided to focus on residences on the largely overlooked coast of Mississippi. They have now photographically documented recovery at six month intervals along the 130-mile Mississippi coast for nine years.

But recovery in a region is influenced also by “the historical conditions that allow that place to become what it is today,” Cutter said. “The environmental and social history of coastal Mississippi has been shaped not only by hurricanes, but also the historical legacy of social and economic development and segregation.” 

For example, during Hurricane Camille in 1969, there were two separate evacuations, one for whites, the other for blacks. They went to different places. There were inequalities in food aid: Families who had the same number of children who were white got more money from the Federal government than families who were African American. The same thing happened with Small Business Administration loans: 90 percent of them went to white small businesses, not black small businesses. After Camille, Federal disaster money was used for a social good. “Camille struck during the Nixon Administration, and Mississippi refused to integrate its schools,” Cutter recounted. “The Federal government, at the urging of Leon Panetta [then Director of the Office for Civil Rights, a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Education], said we are not giving Federal aid money to Mississippi until you integrate the schools. The governor of Mississippi said no. Federal disaster aid was withheld and Mississippi given until December 31, 1969, to integrate the schools. And they did.” 

The patchwork quilt of recovery
is discussed in this 2014 book
That segregation legacy still resonates in coastal Mississippi. “In many ways, Hurricane Katrina was a replication of what happened in Camille 35 years earlier, Cutter observed. It was not as segregated a society in 2005 as it was in 1969, but the vestiges of residential segregation were still there in terms of housing location and the quality of the construction for minority residents.” 

The scale at which recovery is viewed also matters, Cutter noted. At the county level along the Mississippi coast, the general pattern of recovery looks fairly good, but examination at the neighborhood level reveals a veritable patchwork quilt of recovery. As late as 2010, there were still areas in demolition mode. “That is an indication that the scale really matters: that there are some communities and neighborhoods that are simply not recovering, despite the fact that the general pattern looks fairly good,” she observed. Remote sensing imagery also records geographical shifts in development. And changes in demographics reveal that both young families and retirees were leaving the area.

In short, different types of measurements document that “today’s coastal Mississippi has a smaller spatial footprint, a smaller population, fewer retirees,” Cutter summarized. “The majority is still white, but diversity is increasing, largely through an influx of Hispanic populations. There is increasing social vulnerability. We project that it will take about 19 years for the population of communities to return to what they were before Hurricane Katrina.” 

A tale of two regions
Cutter’s second case study was Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City and the coast of New Jersey in 2012. “Just as we focused on Mississippi because everyone was going to New Orleans, and we focused on New Jersey because everyone was going to New York City,” Cutter said, showing a slide that depicted the social vulnerability map underlying the storm track. As with the Mississippi coast, field teams began documenting the rebuilding of structures immediately after Sandy and at six-month intervals thereafter.

The contrast couldn’t have been greater. “In Mississippi six months after Katrina, zero of those points had fully recovered. But in New Jersey six months after Sandy, nearly 75% of those structures that we visited had recovered,” Cutter said.

In comparing the two case studies, Cutter pointed out factors that made the two recoveries so different. In Mississippi, there was slowness in Federal investment in infrastructure, and the governor made a decision to use the initial recovery money for business development, specifically the Port of Gulfport—meaning that low- to middle-income housing was not constructed, and former residents had to go somewhere else to live. “One of the biggest issues retarding redevelopment was the availability and affordability of flood insurance” from the National Flood Insurance Program, Cutter continued. Because the base flood elevation [the flood height having a 1% chance of being reached or exceeded in any given year] along coastal Mississippi is so high, coverage would require the homes to be elevated 8 to 9 feet above base elevation, plus 1 or 2 feet of freeboard [safety margin] on top of that. “So you’re talking about massive structures,” Cutter noted. In later years, recovery along the Mississippi Coast was further retarded by multiple shocks having nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina. During the mortgage crisis of 2007–2008, people could not get mortgage financing to rebuild their homes. The Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill in 2010 fouled the white beaches and hit both the tourism and fishing sectors of the local economies. And in 2012, the area was struck by another hurricane, Hurricane Isaac. 

In contrast, Cutter noted, a third of the housing stock along the Jersey shore is vacation homes. After Hurricane Sandy, those homeowners “were not flooded from their primary residences, so they already had a house they could live in while rebuilding,” Cutter said. Despite FEMA efforts, there was very little penetration of flood insurance: fewer than half of New Jersey communities carried flood insurance policies. But New Jersey is a highly capitalized, wealthy area. Also, “there was an emphasis on the part of Governor [Chris] Christie to get [reconstruction] moving in a hurry” and rapidly recover the shore, because many of the shore communities depend on summer tourism, deriving 80% of their annual income between Memorial Day and Labor Day. As a result, “many had fully recovered within the first six months,” Cutter said. “These two examples illustrate how context and antecedent conditions in areas make a difference in the timing and the geography of recovery.”

Getting off the hazard loss ‘up escalator’
How do we resolve this hazard loss paradox—that despite knowing more, we are losing more? In her view, getting off the hazard loss ‘up escalator’ will depend on major cultural shifts both within policy groups and within hazard science, her third point.

“We know that hazard science can make a difference—if it is used,” Cutter said. One obstacle, she noted, is the aversion of some political leaders to anything scientific. “They view science simply as a belief system: it’s different from their belief system, and therefore it’s bad and meaningless.” That being said, she noted, there are increased efforts by science agencies to engage policy makers. One example is an international group called Integrated Research on Disaster Risk, which is trying to infuse disaster science into public policy.”

Second, “emergency management has to become management, not response,” Cutter stated. “And it has to become pro-active management, not after-the-fact response. That’s going to take a major cultural shift at the national, state, and local level. We need to base public policy on evidence, not expedient politics and who’s in charge of what committees. We need to think in the long term, not just the election cycle of two years or four years. That’s no way to manage risk or develop disaster policy. And the policy community needs to think of hazard researchers as their friends: We can give you good information on which you can base policy.

“In turn, hazard researchers have to make their research available,” she continued. “Publishing your research in a refereed journal is nice but it goes nowhere. You need to develop ways to reach the policy community. They are not going to read a 10-page technical report; they may read a 1-pager with the technical details stripped out and the key messages in there. You need to solve the problems of the policy maker and practitioner. In fact, you need to go to them and ask what are their problems. Last—my favorite, having worked on IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports—hazards researchers have to get over this thing that they can’t say anything because they are uncertain and don’t know the certainty bands. Instead, we have to think about what is good enough information for the policy maker to use to make a sound decision.

Both communities, Cutter concluded, need to keep in mind the broader long-term vision: the goals of equity, fairness, and the development of a more resilient future for the next generation. That's why were in this business in the first place.


Susan L. Cutter is Distinguished Carolina Professor at the University of South Carolina and Director of the university’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. She has authored or edited thirteen books, more than 150 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. Her latest book Hurricane Katrina and the Forgotten Coast of Mississippi examines the post-disaster recovery along the Gulf coast and the role that historic, economic, and social factors play in producing the differential recovery that is so apparent today.


© 2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Explosion at Equality

Selected references
An audio file of Dr. Cutter’s Gilbert F. White Lecture in the Geographical Sciences given at the National Academy of Sciences as well as a PDF of all her slides are available here. (The audio recording begins on slide 6.) Warm gratitude is expressed to Dr. Cutter for allowing me to reproduce several of her slides.

More about the hazard loss escalator appears in the 2011 journal article
The Unsustainable Trend of Natural Hazard Losses in the United States,” by Melanie Gall, Kevin A. Borden, Christopher T. Emrich, and Susan L. Cutter in Sustainability 3:2157-2181, based on data amassed in SHELDUS. .


Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.