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Economic and Natural Disasters since 1900: A Comparative History

Author(s):Singleton, John
Reviewer(s):Grube, Laura E.

Published by EH.Net (July 2016)

John Singleton, Economic and Natural Disasters since 1900: A Comparative History. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2016. vi + 247 pp. $125 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-78254-734-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Laura E. Grube, Department of Economics, Beloit College.

Recent events, including the Great Recession and Hurricane Katrina, have spurred additional analysis of financial crises and natural disasters. In Economic and Natural Disasters since 1900, John Singleton (Professor Economic and Business History at Sheffield Hallam University) takes on a diverse range of disasters using the framework of the disaster cycle. The disaster cycle is a version of the disaster management cycle used by practitioners (including government agencies) to try to reduce or avoid losses from disaster. Management and public policy literature routinely use some form of this framework to analyze natural disasters; however, the application to other types of disasters, including financial crises, is less established.

The case studies he presents are Hurricane Katrina, World War I, the Great Depression, mining disasters, tobacco, and the recent U.S. financial disaster and Eurozone disaster. The chapters, although brief, are well-researched and written in clear prose.

In each case study Singleton identifies the eight phases of disaster: Mitigation and regulatory change, warnings, triggering event, sensemaking and decision making, disaster unfolds, rescue and relief, allocating blame, and recovery and reconstruction. Each phase is presented in a one-to-four page summary. Singleton states “the main purpose is not to identify what could have been done better . . . but rather to observe how decision makers and organizations behaved at different stages of the disaster” (p. 26). I briefly describe two of the six case studies below.

His first case study (chapter 2) is Hurricane Katrina. Singleton gives some history of the flood defenses in New Orleans and locates a few events, such as 2004 Hurricane Ivan, that may be interpreted as warnings of a future disaster. His description of the immense rescue and relief efforts in the days following Hurricane Katrina incorporates the history of the 1927 floods, which also hit New Orleans. Although President Calvin Coolidge relied heavily on local communities and charities, the actions of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, assigned to coordinate assistance efforts, are compared to the leadership efforts during Hurricane Katrina. Singleton sheds light on some of the political disasters that followed Hurricane Katrina, including corruption and allegations of racism in response. He concludes the chapter in what could serve as the warning phase for the next natural disaster that hits the city of New Orleans.

Chapter 4, The Great Depression, covers events both in the U.S. and the world. Singleton briefly touches on competing explanations of the Great Depression. In “sensemaking and decision making” he describes a 1931 session at the American Economic Association Conference where Carl Snyder (Federal Reserve Bank New York) and Josef Schumpeter explained their theories of the crash and depression. Singleton connects the Great Depression with resulting social conflict in the U.S., Germany, and Britain. Although readers familiar with histories of the Great Depression may not find new information in this chapter, the description, admittedly brief and simplified, highlights the interconnectedness of financial, political, and social institutions.

Reading the collection of case studies, I struggled at times wondering if it makes sense to put together the diversity of phenomena that Singleton does and whether the disaster cycle works to explain all of them. Singleton does state that he does not wish to say there is an analogy [for example] between Hurricane Katrina and the Great Depression (p. 12). However, to the extent that the social phenomena are different, the phases are also different in, perhaps, important ways. If we change the meaning of the different phases, then the argument that the disasters all follow the same phases falls apart. For example, compare the “triggering event” phases in the tobacco disaster (think public health crisis) and in World War I. There is no single event that communicates to smokers the deadly impacts of smoking tobacco. The triggering event of World War I is interpreted as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. What does rescue and relief look like for tobacco? Doctors treat patients for tobacco-related diseases. In Hurricane Katrina, it is the efforts of the Coast Guard, FEMA, civil society, and others to provide food, clothing, and shelter to those impacted. These are very different social phenomena.

There are also costs to using the disaster cycle framework that may not outweigh the benefits. Singleton suggests that there is value in illustrating that disasters share many characteristics and pass through the same phases (p. 24). The costs, however, are regimented chapters and extreme brevity of explanation (the chapters together are 193 pages for six case studies and an introduction and conclusion). Further, the regimentation and brevity at times makes very interesting topics — for example, Hurricane Katrina and the recovery process — quite dull. Singleton focuses on decision makers in government and weather experts and omits the lived experiences and interpretations of residents impacted by Hurricane Katrina. (Interested readers can check out the interviews assembled in Storr et al. 2015).

Singleton’s book may be of interest to scholars and students of management and public policy. He offers brief, yet informative descriptions of disasters since 1900, however, it is not clear that his disaster cycle is the most helpful model for explaining or understanding the phenomena he selects.

Reference:

Nona Martin Storr, Emily Chamlee-Wright, and Virgil Henry Storr. 2015. How We Came Back: Voices from Post-Katrina New Orleans. Mercatus Center.

Laura E. Grube is the author (with Henry Virgil Storr and Stefanie Haeffele-Balch) of Community Revival in the Wake of Disaster: Lessons in Local Entrepreneurship (Palgrave, 2015).

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Military and War
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII