How Can We Improve Our Policy on Natural Disasters?

In his new book, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era, Jacob Remes argues that solutions start with the locals.
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Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. (Photo: University of Illinois Press)

Is there such thing as a natural disaster? Historian Jacob Remes says no. In Remes' account, disasters are the intersection of natural hazards with society and politics. Remes came upon this framing during Hurricane Katrina, when he, like many of us, sat in front of screens watching citizens crammed into makeshift shelters. We saw corpses floating down city streets, the same ones Blackwater contractors patrolled as if they were in Iraq. We heard unbelievable tales from supposedly reliable sources, like the mayor, who, as it turns out, wasn't so reliable. State, local, and federal government forsook their citizens on every level, but the citizens themselves? They demonstrated the kind of solidarity we expect in a civil society.

Remes established a name for this phenomenon of social fusion, and it became the title of his first book: In Disaster Citizenship, published in January by the University of Illinois Press, Remes looks at two major turn-of-the-century disasters in Salem, Massachusetts, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, and asks, what happened in the aftermath? Who established order and relief?

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Cities have been destroyed by disease, fire, and fighting throughout history. How does the aftermath differ in those catastrophes versus bombing? How has technology changed that?

In 19th-century North American cities, there were conflagrations all the time. Fires would start at homes or in factories and then spread, well, like wildfire. The decline of wood heat and candlelight decreased some risk in the middle of the century, but big, dense industrial cities had their own fire hazard. In 1914, when a fire started at a patent leather factory in Salem, firefighting had professionalized, there was more fireproof construction, and streets—which in the 19th century were filled with things like barrels of chemicals and pushcarts and shingles—were becoming clear so that cars could drive through them more easily. Salem's fire spread thanks to wind and bad luck and cheap, wooden, closely packed tenements for poor workers, but it was the last of these major fires.

Instead, when you think of urban destruction—especially urban destruction by flame—in the 20th century, you think of war: of Guernica, or Coventry, or Dresden, or Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the truly shocking 50 percent of Japanese urban area that was destroyed by American firebombing. Halifax wasn't an intentional bombing, of course, but it was the first time a city filled mostly with white people was destroyed in an instant by an explosion during war. As I say in the book, Haligonians stood on a precipice, together with colonial subjects on whom imperial powers had been experimenting with aerial bombing right before World War I, of a new age of disaster.

Why Salem and Halifax? Why these two cases?

Salem and Halifax were linked by people and ideas. Forty-six percent of the families affected by the Salem fire were Canadian, and so in some ways, I'm writing about Canadians on both sides of the border. And the people who helped after the disaster were the same too. In particular, three men—a Boston Brahmin named John Moors, a Jewish banker named Captain Ratshesky, and a YMCA administrator named Christian Lantz—helped design both the Salem relief efforts and the system in Halifax.

How do communities change in the aftermath of disaster?

At the heart of what I call "disaster citizenship" was the idea that working-class people could create new ways of interacting with the state. This was a period in which the role of the government was expanding rapidly, often to help its citizens. And yet while my subjects welcomed the material aid the state offered, they wanted help on their own terms. Where the state cared about the expertise of social workers and engineers, working-class disaster survivors shared what they had learned informally. Where the state increasingly thickened borders, survivors built transnational and diasporic politics. Where the state centralized and built hierarchy, survivors preferred solidarity and mutual aid.

Central to this politics was that workers organized in new ways. For instance, when Halifax workers organized a Labor Party to contest elections, its platform didn't revolve around workplace issues. It revolved around housing and schools. Halifax's labor movement also became more welcoming of women, of black workers, and of unskilled workers. What we see in unions happened in lots of instances: neighbors rescued and sheltered each other, Presbyterians and Methodists in Halifax built their churches back as one, overcoming their denominational differences, and ordinary people in both the United States and Canada sent money—and the political power that came with their money—across the border.

In Salem, workers rebelled against a union leadership that cooperated with management at the city's biggest employer. What does this story tell us about workers control and how to think about labor history?

A key idea in American labor history is that labor disputes have been about worker control as much or more than they've been about bread-and-butter issues. That is to say, when workers and bosses have fought, what they're really fighting over who is going to have power on the shop floor, who is going to control how work is done, whether there's going to be democracy over the institution and the place where workers spend a plurality of their lives. Do bosses decide how work happens, how much is produced, who gets what jobs, what hours are worked and under what conditions, or do workers? All that is more important, both to bosses and the workers, than how much money people are paid.

What I do in the section you're talking about is give a concrete example of this fight over power, and its limits. The biggest employer in Salem was a factory that made sheets and pillowcases, called the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company. Soon after they re-built from the Salem fire, workers there organized into an unusual industrial union—that is, a single union for all the workers at the factory, regardless of craft or skill. With the power they got from organizing—the power to shut down production by withholding their labor in concert—they demanded not only higher wages, but also more power. They got a seniority system, and a grievance procedure, and the union started even to do things like marketing. What this meant is that the otherwise arbitrary power of bosses to discipline and hire and fire was now limited—managers had to share that power with workers. Indeed, when the bosses demanded higher efficiency—fewer workers producing more sheets—the union agreed as long as it got to control the "stretch out" through a union-dominated committee.

How'd that work out?

It works well at first—the factory is featured in national magazines as a model for labor relations—but not forever. The business agent of the union—a guy named John O'Connell, which is relevant because the vast majority of the workers by this point were either French Canadian or Polish, and O'Connell, as you can tell from his name, was neither—O'Connell becomes a boss in worker's clothing. He starts appointing people to the committee who want promotions to be managers. He's rumored to own stock in the company. He fails to pass on crucial information to his membership, deriding them as—and I apologize for quoting his slurs—"a bunch of ignorant Canucks and Polaks who wouldn't understand anyway."

So the workers—who, remember are in it for the power—rebel. In 1933 they reject one of O'Connell's contracts, go on strike without him, and found a new, independent union. The new union causes something of a problem for management, because they insist on going to the membership for democratic votes on everything. They'd really adopted worker control as their primary purpose. To me it's a story about what a union can and should be: a vehicle for worker power.

Who do you hope reads this?

As a historian, I use disaster as a way to talk about the history of welfare. I talk about "big" disasters—explosion, fire, and, by extension, earthquake, hurricane, etc.—but what I describe is also true after "small," daily disasters—what historian Annelise Orleck calls the "bad luck and lousy people" that leave people poor. Disasters help us understand how recipients respond to a growing, increasingly activist state. When I teach the history of the U.S. welfare state, I tell students that within (or behind) every social worker is a cop. My book helps us understand how people deal with that cop/social worker.

If there was a single takeaway, what would it be? I'm thinking about politicians who show up with concerned looks and rolled-up shirtsleeves—and a trail of media. This lasts for a few hours, maybe over a few days, but the actual relief, and the implementation of that relief, seems like its own disaster.

I very much hope that people in disaster policy and disaster management read this book. To them I say: Be humble. When you impose your way of doing things—especially when you do so with armed agents like the police and National Guard—you run the risk of making things worse. You flatten and erase the complexity and the local knowledge that are required to fix people's lives after a disaster. The slogan "solidarity, not charity" isn't just an ethical question; it's a practical, empirical prescription. In Salem and Halifax, the aid that was offered in solidarity—that is, by fellow sufferers, by social equals, given because the giver and receiver were fundamentally the same, rather than the giver having or being more—simply worked better.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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