Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2007 | In Class

When Disaster Strikes

By Amy Schoon
A new course examines how people respond to natural catastrophes.

Photo: ADPRO Design
Students in Paul Greenough's course discuss the historical triumphs and failures of human response to the forces of nature.


"Let's explore this for a second...," says history professor Paul Greenough, as he perches on his desk's edge in 74 Schaeffer Hall and leans forward to engage his students in a discussion. A debate. A dissection of history and the human condition.

"You're stranded in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. You need fresh drinking water. Your family needs food and diapers," he says. "Do you break into a business and take what you need?"

A few nods ripple across the room.

Then he asks a bit more forcefully, "Do you steal?"

One student shouts, "You bet!"

A new UI course taught for the first time in fall 2006, "Historical Background of Contemporary Issues: Tsunami and Response to Natural Disasters" offers an historical perspective on how people, cities, regions, nations, and the global community respond to devastating natural disasters such as tsunamis, plagues, floods, earthquakes, and famines.

Is a disruption in the ecosystem to blame for such situations? How do people organize to effectively put pressure on authorities to provide relief? Do those in charge fail to respond in a timely manner? Are hands simply thrown up in defeat to God's wrath?

Or are such crises sometimes just a messy mix of disaster itself and people's reaction to it?

"This course made me realize that the disaster doesn't end as soon as the disaster event stops. That's only the beginning," says Claire Miller, a history and English junior from Ames. "We can't think of natural disasters simply as an act of nature. They're really human disasters, based on how people respond or don't respond to them."

Each session, the instructor's personal accounts, readings, films, visitors' testimony, CDs, and the Internet transport students from the Pentacrest to places around the globe and throughout history. Even though the course title highlights a tsunami of the 21st century, Greenough begins the study of disasters with the Plague of Athens in 430 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War. This epidemic, believed to be typhus, killed perhaps one-third of the people within the city and then spread to much of the eastern Mediterranean.

The UI students read an account of the Athenian plague by contemporary historian Thucydides, a survivor of the disease, who emphasized that society fell apart because no institution—political, religious, or otherwise—offered any remedy or coping mechanism.

"It was literally every man for himself," notes Greenough, who stresses the importance of organization and structure in coping with and recovering from disaster, then and now.

Sometimes, disaster spawns organization and structure. The Black Death, which killed between one-third and half of the population of 14th century Europe, gave birth to the first public health system, when churches and city governments started to use a quarantine system, arrange mass burials, isolate the infected, and tally death tolls.

Photo: Paul Greenough
On a 2004 research trip to Sri Lanka, Greenough witnessed such scenes following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami.


By the 17th century, people began to make an important transition from thinking of disasters not as matters of chance, but as expected, if unpredictable, events. By calculating the number of deaths due to illness, the frequency of fires, and so on, they discovered numerical information that turned chance—which is random—into risk, which is quantifiable. Thus developed life insurance.

For many people, though—both in ancient and modern times—only the direct intervention of God can account for such catastrophes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, English demographer and political economist Thomas Malthus proposed that sickness, poverty, and misery are trials set by God to test and improve human character, and that the state shouldn't intervene to aid victims.

Twice a week, the 20 UI students—mostly history majors with a few political science and other liberal arts majors—meet for 75 minutes to delve into and debate such issues.

"Professor Greenough can be a little intimidating. He's very intelligent and he has such a passion for this topic," says Lindsay Chess, a history and secondary education junior from Bettendorf. "But, he welcomes discussion and differing opinions. It's not your typical history class where a teacher stands up in front and talks about what happened 200 years ago. It's challenging and eye-opening."

One of the main reasons for Greenough's passion is his personal connection with the Indian Ocean tsunami. The course might not even exist if it weren't for the fact that he and fellow researchers were in Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, studying the area's healthcare system. While they were protected on high ground about 60 miles inland, people on the coast experienced one of history's most destructive natural disasters.

An earthquake of 9.3 on the Richter scale unleashed energy equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. The resulting tsunami, a series of brutal waves as high as 50 feet, left more than 220,000 people dead or missing and millions more homeless in 11 countries.

Yet, it also prompted a widespread humanitarian response like nothing ever seen before. Relief agencies worldwide collected billions of dollars in aid. Within hours, according to Greenough, trucks and cars loaded with medicine, water, and food streamed to the coasts of Sri Lanka. Within a day or two, bodies had been removed, and within about five days, the U.S. Marines had arrived.

The second half of the UI course focuses on a disaster closer to home—Hurricane Katrina, which pounded the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005. The costliest and one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history, Katrina killed 1,830 people and caused $81.2 billion in damage. To learn more about the breakdown in response and rescue, particularly in New Orleans, the class watches the Spike Lee documentary, When the Levees Broke, which highlights the racial and socio-economic issues that plagued recovery efforts. Students examine a laundry list of "what went wrongs" related to the storm.

Photo: Paul Greenough

After all, a direct hit on New Orleans by a strong hurricane was a widely predicted disaster. Yet, no one seemed prepared. For a start, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others built a levee system not nearly strong enough to withstand the hurricane's force. When city officials ordered a last-minute evacuation, they made no arrangements for poor and sick people without transportation.

"Afterwards, government and relief agencies whose duty it is to get in there quickly simply didn't do it," Greenough says. "They failed miserably; it was a total breakdown."

One theme that pops up again and again throughout the semester is the idea of victimization. A hurricane rips apart a woman's life; eight feet of putrid muck and water pour through the doors and windows of a family's home; an earthquake shakes a building from its foundation and puts people out of work. Are they victims? Are they powerless to fight back? In some cases, yes. But more often, Greenough says, people in these terrible situations show signs of "agency." They find a way to pull themselves out of the depths of despair, rearrange their circumstances, and search for security.

During Katrina, people fled to attics, broke holes in rooftops to escape, made signs for rescuers to spot. Those who had boats used them to get their loved ones to safety, then often went back to rescue others.

"Victim. That's not a word I like to use in this course," Greenough says. "That implies that a person is caught on a hook, helpless, flailing. Agents are able to make choices, decisions, to help put them in a better place. There were many examples of agency in the tsunami and Katrina."

Greenough hopes this new course is just the beginning of the university's interest in natural disaster response. Along with colleagues from the Colleges of Law, Public Health, and Engineering, the School of Journalism, and the Department of International Programs, he is developing a novel curriculum for a new field—Natural Disaster Response Studies.

"We call natural disasters 'predictable unpredictables' because we know they will happen; we just don't know when. We need to be prepared for them, to learn from past mistakes," he says. "We're always going to have these natural disasters, and we'll always need to respond to them. It's a dead certainty."