Harvey, Maria, and the Political Aftermath of Natural Disasters

Disasters bring destruction—but history reveals how they can also catalyze community organizing.
photo: aerial footage of flooding in Houston suburb after Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey impacts. Photo by Karl Spencer/Thinkstock

In the span of a single month this hurricane season, the United States experienced a spate of natural disasters that not only left many communities reeling, but also revealed stark disparities in where the uncertain path to recovery can lead. On the one hand, disaster response can bring people together. Following Hurricane Harvey, for instance, tales abounded of local community members undertaking recovery efforts. It seemed as though the storms, despite the material and human loss they caused, offered opportunities to build solidarity.

But disasters can just as easily throw communities into political turmoil. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico continues to face water, fuel, power, and other shortages, as well as a mangled communications infrastructure. And against the backdrop of sturdy relief responses in the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico’s troubled recovery has been emblematic of what many consider to be the U.S.’s paternalistic treatment of Puerto Rico and its citizens.

The Jones Act, which mandates that only U.S. vessels do shipping between U.S. shores, has been particularly contentious. Critics say that the law hamstrings recovery efforts by limiting sources of supplies—and while the Trump administration waived the Jones Act after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it initially refused to do so for Puerto Rico. The waiver did eventually materialize, but it has since expired, and has yet to be extended.

Like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans over a decade ago, Maria has highlighted the degree to which disasters disparately affect populations of differing socioeconomic status—a topic of interest for Gallatin professor and labor historian Jacob Remes, who has studied the local politics of disaster recovery. His 2016 book, Disaster Citizenship, tells the story of two disasters of the Progressive Era and assesses how working-class communities responded to them. What emerges from Remes’s scholarship is the promise—fragile as it may be—of post-disaster progress.

To try to imagine how Puerto Rico might rebuild post-Maria, NYU News talked with Remes about class difference, the importance of local knowledge in recovery efforts, and the role of community organizing in effecting progressive change. 

Disaster Citizenship looked at how working-class people responded to the Salem Fire of 1914 and the Halifax Explosion of 1917. What did you learn about their methods of recovery? 
photo: professor Jacob Remes

The big takeaway is that people desperately wanted relief—they wanted material aid, they often wanted cash, and they needed a place to live, because so many houses were destroyed. So people were very desperate. But at the same time, they wanted that relief on their own terms. They wanted the relief that they wanted, and not what outsiders or the government wanted to give them. What that meant in practice was that sometimes people turned down the aid that was offered when it wasn’t what they wanted, or when it came with too many strings attached.

What were some of the tensions between working-class survivors and those who provided them with support?

One of the things that often gets lost in disaster relief when it’s coming from the outside is understanding that there’s more to disaster relief than the material. There’s something emotional or almost spiritual that happens also, and people can only get that from their friends and neighbors and family. When it’s coming from an outsider, that emotional support isn’t there, and that’s a really important thing to recognize. The way in which people rescue themselves and rescue each other is a really important part of understanding how rescue and relief happen. It’s not just people with more giving to people with less—it’s people who are affected all helping each other.

Do you see similar dynamics at work in relief efforts following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria?

I should say that I am not an expert in contemporary disaster relief, but yes, absolutely. It’s almost a universal that people end up rescuing each other. You certainly saw that in stories about neighbors taking each other in after Harvey, about ordinary Houstonians and Texans taking their boats and going to look for people to rescue. There’s this local knowledge element that’s really important.

There’s also another common element, which is that top-down disaster relief is so often done by the military and police. The problem is that there are lots of people who for good reason want nothing to do with the military and the police. Maybe they are part of a racialized group who fear getting shot by the police. These dynamics of power often get in the way of response.

Since Hurricane Maria, there have been towns in Puerto Rico that haven’t been able to communicate with the outside world—and I really want to know what those people have been doing. How have they been supporting each other? What new ways have they been experimenting with to be citizens, and members of their community?

One of the big controversies surrounding Puerto Rico’s recovery has been the waiving of the Jones Act. What’s your take on it?

As a labor historian, the primary thing I know about the Jones Act is that it requires that ships going from one U.S. port to another be built and flagged in the U.S. What that means is that within the U.S. shipping trade, you can’t have what’s called flags of convenience. That’s a global problem where ships that are owned by, say, American or European corporations, say, “Oh, I’m a Panamanian ship.” The Jones Act says you can’t take on a flag of convenience when shipping within the United States. You have to follow U.S. law, particularly U.S. labor and environmental law. There are certainly deep-pocketed forces in the world that want to get rid of the Jones Act because they want to be able to build their ships in cheaper places, staff them with cheaper labor, and pollute more. So I am really nervous to sign on to a project of getting rid of the Jones Act entirely because of this disaster.

Now, that said, I have seen contradictory claims about how this affects Puerto Rico. I would not be surprised if the Jones Act, as a law created on the mainland for mainlanders, hurts people in the American empire, and I would certainly be open to revisions of it. I’m just really nervous that this disaster may be used as a way to deregulate the shipping industry, as disasters are often used to push through pre-existing agendas.

Naomi Klein discusses a similar concept—the idea that disasters provide opportunities to impose “disaster capitalism”—in The Shock Doctrine. But in Disaster Citizenship, you argue that this isn’t a foregone conclusion.

The central metaphor of The Shock Doctrine is literal shock therapy. The idea is that in electroconvulsive therapy, you shock the patient so much that the patient’s personality defenses are broken down. Then the doctor gets to rebuild the patient’s personality how the doctor wishes. I actually have no idea whether this is an accurate depiction of shock therapy, but it’s definitely not an accurate depiction of disasters. What happens in disasters is not that defenses are torn down and society falls apart and then can be rebuilt however the bad guys want to rebuild it. It’s just the opposite—people help each other, and there’s a strengthening of civil society, mutual aid, and solidarity. Neither disaster capitalism nor disaster citizenship is necessarily going to happen—these ideas are fought over by different organizations and individuals. That contest, that fight, is what matters. So I don’t see disasters as this moment of danger the way Klein does. I see them as a moment of real potential. I can’t point to any time when this has actually happened, but there’s the potential to take that post-disaster solidarity and altruism and extend it beyond the disaster moment.

You mentioned that you can’t point to an instance of solidarity continuing post-disaster. Why not? What is missing?

The short answer is that I think it’s hard to fight against capital. Workers have fought against capital for a long time. They win some and they lose some, but mostly they lose. There have been some efforts that I admire, but they didn’t last. After Katrina there was the Common Ground Collective, which did collective self-defense against white vigilantes who were threatening black people, set up a clinic, and helped people fix their houses. It was very much on this model of mutual aid, of everyone helping each other, of being dependent neither on the state nor on outside charity. Occupy Sandy was another example of people who went in with the ideological framework of, “How do we build something that is different?”

But the state is really big, and capitalism is really big, and so these new experiments in how to be a citizen often lose. They’re fighting against all of the enormous pressures of capitalism and white supremacy and patriarchy that we’re all always fighting against. And frequently losing against.

So I guess what’s missing is organizing. That’s always what there has to be: workers organizing and building power and building ways of helping each other and demanding things from others based on working together. Sometimes people are good at that, sometimes people aren’t, and sometimes that organizing is intentionally disrupted. I think that’s what’s missing.