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As I report on the seemingly endless stream of wildfires, hurricanes, or floods experienced across the United States in recent years, I often think of the phrase, “A recipe for disaster.” It’s the sort of phrase that feels best said in a dramatic podcasting voice, but cliche as it may be, I’ve found it sums up these events much more accurately than the commonly-deployed “natural disaster.”

The term disaster itself comes from a combination of Latin words that roughly translates to “ill-starred.” This refers to the early belief that disasters were punishments from the universe or God. Over time, our understanding of disasters evolved and other explanations took root. Researchers shared the science behind natural hazards like earthquakes or tornadoes, knowledge that allowed us to track and prepare for them. We came to adopt the phrase “natural disasters” to describe particularly impactful bouts of these naturally-occurring phenomena, a term we still use today despite the fact that there is scientific consensus that humans have altered the natural world around us. 

The following stories dig into the “ingredients” of recent natural hazard-related disasters. Each piece traces back through time to unveil how policies, politics, or societal norms set the stage for the disasters they chronicle. The authors interrogate the role of fossil fuels and industry; of racism, classism, and colonialism. Ultimately, they offer an opportunity to learn from the past, and hopefully better prepare for the inevitable hazards to come. 

We Have Fires Everywhere (Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine, July 2019)

The 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, California, has been the subject of countless articles, documentaries, essays, books, and even an upcoming film feature. Much coverage of the wildfire has focused on the horrors of the evacuation process or the near-total devastation of the rural town. And while Jon Mooallem certainly spends time on both of these subjects, he also chronicles the path that led to that November day, including digging into Paradise’s previous brushes with wildfires and attempts to learn from those incidents and prepare for future fires. 

This was a perspective many other stories left out, the fact that residents and officials not only understood there was a threat but attempted to mitigate it. He presents those failed efforts against the backdrop of the broader landscape of PG&E’s infrastructure failures and the suppression-first firefighting policies, which, mixed with years of drought and warming temperatures, primed the forests surrounding Paradise to ignite in a conflagration that surpassed the idea of what a worst-case scenario could look like. 

I remember being so struck by the ending of the piece after my first time reading it — simple sentences that were particularly prescient, knowing what we’ve seen in the years since. 

Still, even before the Camp Fire, many people in Paradise and around California had started to look at the recent succession of devastating fires — the Tubbs Fire, the Thomas Fire, blazes that ate through suburban-seeming neighborhoods and took lives — and intuit that our dominion over fire might be slipping. Something was different now: Fire was winning, finding ways to outstrip our fight response, to rear up recklessly and break us down. That morning, in Paradise, there hadn’t even been time for that fight response to kick in. And the flight response was failing, too. Those who study wildfire have long argued that we need to reshuffle our relationship to it — move from reflexively trying to conquer fire to designing ways for communities to outfox and withstand it. 

Earth’s New Gilded Era (Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic, October 2020) 

For years, heat waves have been among the deadliest extreme weather events in the United States, but it’s rare for extreme heat to be referred to as a disaster. There’s a growing movement to treat such sweltering stretches like we do hurricanes or wildfires, ascribing names or categories to them, to convey their seriousness. Part of the challenge in winning that battle, as Vann R. Newkirk explains in this article, is that the impacts of heat are so disparate. 

Newkirk tackled the subject after spending years on the disaster beat, including revisiting Hurricane Katrina in the deftly reported Floodlines podcast. In this story, he spans the globe to identify the throughlines of historic inequity that correlate with heat exposure. For many, heat waves mean days spent largely inside, air conditioning cranked up. It’s those who do not have that luxury — maybe their jobs require them to be exposed to the temperatures or their neighborhood and home does not have adequate cooling infrastructure — who are most impacted. 

When Americans think about climate change, they probably don’t have these kinds of consequences in mind—an uptick in stillbirths, or more Black children with asthma. Climate communication often tends toward the apocalyptic and the episodic, for good reason: Dramatic events are a good way to get apathetic people to care. But the destruction wrought by the heat gap in American neighborhoods is just as important as the high-profile cataclysms. That destruction is insidious and hard to follow because it plays out along existing lines of inequality and injustice. Comparable to its role in some chemical reactions, heat accelerates the logical outcomes of unequal human systems. In this reaction, heat is not necessarily a bomb that will suddenly vaporize civilizations. Here, its preferred pathway is decomposition, working slowly and steadily at severing bonds until two components are separate, if not equal.

The Abolitionists Born After Hurricane María (Edmy Ayala Rosado, Atmos, 2022) 

Edmy Ayala Rosado set out to write about the fifth anniversary of Hurricane María and the power of Puerto Rican people, she explains at the start of this article. Instead, she found herself having to make sense of yet another devastating storm. While 2022’s Hurricane Fiona was historic, it was in many ways not surprising, Rosado says, as Puerto Rico has weathered multiple significant disasters in the years since Maria. She includes political disasters in this list, noting throughout the piece that it’s impossible to strip politics from the impacts of these natural hazards. 

Blackouts and electrical issues certainly stemmed from the 2018 storm’s lashing winds, but they continue because of politics, Ayala Rosado argues. She chronicles the work of citizen-led grassroots groups that are tackling some of Puerto Rico’s most entrenched issues since the storm: electricity, food sovereignty, and accessing aid funding. Repeatedly, she returns to the structural and political problems that began long before Hurricane María, which were then laid bare and exacerbated by the challenging years that have followed. But she never loses faith in her community’s ability to withstand what happens next. 

Many of these efforts—although created in the darkness of one of the worst weather events in recent history—have helped local communities steer our reconstruction. They are doing it leveraging academic, historic, political, and ancestral knowledge. 

We Boricuas are showing the world a true and noble resistance to capitalism, neoliberalism, and imperialism. Though some may argue the colonial project seems to be working in Puerto Rico, we push back. We level the playing field for true sovereignty. We have turned our grief into action.

The Bear God Revisited (Emily Sekine, Orion Magazine, February 2020)

While studying geology in Japan, Emily Sekine explores the ways disasters become a part of culture. They’re woven into the stories we pass down, like the titular “Bear God,” and they can shape the way we live our daily lives, if we so choose. Sekine acknowledges the high risk of natural hazards Japanese people face on any given day, with the ground under their feet existing across four tectonic plates. But the “3.11 disaster” still remains singularly devastating, Sekine says, referring to the earthquake-triggered tsunami that also caused a nuclear accident. More than 15,000 people were killed and more than 400,000 were displaced. 

Observing the disaster from nearly a decade later, Sekine joins a preparedness workshop being offered to residents in Tago. After a brief topography lesson, participants fan out into the landscape, tasked with viewing the familiar landscapes of their neighborhood through disaster-focused eyes. What obstacles might prevent them from evacuating before the wave of a tsunami crests towards their path? What steps could they take now to prevent that from happening?

Like most of the reads on the list, Sekine’s essay draws from the benefit of hindsight, of being able to look back at a disaster and decipher what went wrong. So, I appreciated the inclusion of this meeting, of using that understanding from the past to take steps to mitigate what devastation a future earthquake might cause. 

One of the main appeals of living in and visiting the areas around Mount Fuji is the pleasure of soaking in the mineral-rich onsen, or hot spring baths. But, Tanaka-san told me, most people do not connect this experience with the ever-present threat of earthquakes and volcanoes. When people are relaxing in the onsen, he wants them to think about how these geological processes are connected. His point, as I understand it, is not to ignite fear, but to insist that people grasp the full and varied powers of the earth — the blessings as well as the dangers. 

The Really Big One (Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker, 2015)

It’s impossible to talk about longform disaster writing without mentioning this piece, which brought the threat of a major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest into public consciousness. When reporting in Washington once, I was even presented with a carefully stapled paper printout of the article. Residents told me it had inspired — or, perhaps, frightened — their rural community to develop its own preparedness committee.

Schulz approaches the threat that lies under some of the West’s biggest cities from multiple angles, from the scientific to the sociological. It culminates in her predicting what the earthquake might look like on a societal level, from the grid collapses to the roads destroyed, and the personal level, from the way “refrigerators will walk out of kitchens” to the various ways homes might slide off their foundations and collapse. Ultimately, Schulz questions how we’ve come to a place where we’ve researched and studied and learned so much about this risk, yet taken such little action to prepare for it. 

The Cascadia subduction zone remained hidden from us for so long because we could not see deep enough into the past. It poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future. That is no longer a problem of information; we now understand very well what the Cascadia fault line will someday do. Nor is it a problem of imagination. If you are so inclined, you can watch an earthquake destroy much of the West Coast this summer in Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas,” while, in neighboring theatres, the world threatens to succumb to Armageddon by other means: viruses, robots, resource scarcity, zombies, aliens, plague. As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them.

Great American Wasteland (Lauren Stroh, Longreads, March 2022)

Writing about her native Louisiana, Lauren Stroh speaks to the reader with familiarity, as if welcoming you into the sort of exchanges you hear on a front porch or in passing at a local diner. In Cameron Parish, those conversations for the past three years have centered largely around disaster. The town experienced two hurricanes, a winter storm, flooding, and tornadoes all in a less than two-year period, all during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid the deaths, destruction, and devastation, Stroh asks why. 

Why was the area so vulnerable in the first place? Why were bodies still being held in trailers months after the storms? Why was there not more aid and funding being sent to address this devastation?

While I described Stroh as welcoming to the reader, that’s not to say she approaches these conversations lightheartedly — she’s frustrated and angry, tired, and tough, and her voice is unflinching. Throughout the piece, Stroh shares snippets of her interviews, again letting the reader in to be a part of her conversations. Some of these are with officials; one with a suspect nonprofit leader. Others are with the residents who remain, the people who are navigating the maze of insurance claims and federal aid Stroh carefully lays out. It’s an analysis of how cascading disasters can bury survivors in bureaucracy, making it increasingly difficult for them to surface before the next one strikes, and the ways the same bureaucratic system can contort to let industry off the hook. 

Danny Lavergne, the director of Cameron’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, tells me it took 51 weeks for FEMA to get 201 people housed in mobile housing units after Hurricane Laura. For months they refused to place camper trailers in a flood zone before abruptly reversing that decision without reason or explanation. That’s how arbitrary bureaucracy can be. But it fucks up your life: For nine months, 201 people were homeless and waiting. They made do in loved ones’ living rooms, in their cars, in hotel rooms they had to drive in from situated far and wide across the state. People lived this way through the fall and into spring — throughout the pandemic in 2020, when at times Louisiana suffered among the highest caseloads in the United States, long before there were any vaccines. Cameron’s only hospital is still operating out of a tent with limited services. Lake Charles has no homeless shelter, and all the hotels and apartments in close vicinity were damaged or price gouged to match the demand for livable housing. In the meantime, while they waited on FEMA to coordinate temporary housing, do tell me — where exactly were these people supposed to go?

Colleen Hagerty is a journalist specializing in disaster coverage for outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and BBC News, among others. She also has a newsletter on the subject called My World’s on Fire. You can find her on Twitter @colleenhagerty.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy-editor: Peter Rubin