The Author’s Corner with Cynthia Kierner

inventing disasterCynthia A. Kierner is Professor of History at George Mason University. This interview is based on her new book, Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Inventing Disaster?

CK: Oddly, the event that inspired the book was Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Jersey Shore (and New York City) in 2012. Because I grew up going to the shore, and still go there every summer, I found the news coverage of Sandy and the disaster relief efforts after the storm absolutely fascinating. I also noticed that the sorts of stories told about disaster victims and survivors—and the people who helped (or sometimes did not help)—were pretty much the same as after other recent disasters. This led me to wonder about the origins of this way of responding to disasters—what I call a culture of disaster.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inventing Disaster?

CK: Inventing Disaster traces the gradual coalescence of this modern culture of disaster over nearly three centuries, in the British Atlantic world and then in the independent American republic. In the book, I argue that this new response to calamity grew out of three developments that scholars associate with the Enlightenment: the spread of information via trade, travel, and print; the belief in human agency and progress; and the growing influence of the culture of sensibility.

JF: Why do we need to read Inventing Disaster?

CK: What’s not to like about hurricanes, plagues, and exploding steamboats? Seriously, although the book includes engaging disaster stories and vivid contemporary illustrations, I believe that understanding the historical and cultural roots of our own culture of calamity is a prerequisite for assessing how we approach prevention, relief, and recovery efforts in these disaster-ridden times.

For instance, our approach to disaster today, as I said, is rooted in an Enlightenment-inspired confidence in humanity’s ability to conquer and control nature. Is that confidence sustainable now—was it ever? Should disaster prevention be a matter for government mandates, or for community voluntarism? Should disaster relief be a social priority, and, if so, which people or entities should provide aid to disaster victims and how should it be funded? Is disaster relief first and foremost an expression of sympathy, or an effort to maintain social order? How do disaster stories, in the media and elsewhere, shape our often-conflicted understandings of why disasters happen and how we should plan for them and react in times of crisis? These questions, which were first pondered during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, continue to drive the debates we have about disasters in twenty-first-century America.

For those less interested in current events, the book also offers a different perspective on topics ranging from the changing role of the state (in the British Empire and later in the American Republic) to the evolution of print and visual culture in post-revolutionary America.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CK: I decided to be a historian when I was in college. I entered university expecting to go to law school. But then I met some law students, saw what they were reading (and writing), and decided that history would be much more fun. I was torn between doing British and American history. Being an early Americanist seemed like the perfect compromise.

JF: What is your next project?

CK: I have several. First, I am coediting a collection of essays on American disasters. I also have two smaller-scale early American projects: a cultural history of the earliest U.S. censuses and an article-length study of a remarkably interesting and outspoken woman in revolutionary North Carolina. My next book-length project, however, will likely be a biography of Joan Whitney Payson, art collector, patron of the arts, horse enthusiast, and founding owner of the New York Mets.

JF: Thanks, Cynthia!

Rod Dreher Calls Out the Court Evangelicals


In a post criticizing Donald Trump’s handling of Puerto Rico, American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher (of Benedict Option fame) wonders why the court evangelicals have been so quiet.

Here is a taste:

Where are Donald Trump’s court Evangelicals on this? If you cannot stand up to your friend the US president when he threatens to stop sending humanitarian aid to American citizens who are hungry, thirsty, sick, and without shelter, then God help you when you come before the King of Kings.

Read the entire post here.

Some Historical Context for the U.S. Response to Puerto Rico


As historian Marc-William Palen reminds us, Puerto Rico has always been in a “precarious position within the U.S. body politic.”  The history of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is indispensable to understanding the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria.

Here is a taste of Palen’s Washington Post piece: “Decisions more than a century ago explain why the U.S. has failed Puerto Rico in its time of need.”

The decision made in the late 19th century to make Puerto Rico a colony without the full political equality of statehood is now crippling the island’s ability to recover from Maria. The Trump administration’s initial enforcement of the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from entering Puerto Rican ports, and the indifference of many Americans toward the plight of Puerto Ricans were born out of this nearly forgotten turn-of-the-century imperial decision. Americans must reconcile and rectify their imperial legacy, or Puerto Rico will continue to suffer.


Read the rest here.

Lupica: The Mayor of San Juan is a Hero


I have been reading Mike Lupica for a long time, but I don’t think I have ever done a blog post on one of his columns.  That changes today.  Sometimes you just need to hear from a veteran New York journalist.  Here is Lupica’s Daily News piece on San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz:

Last weekend it was the National Football League treated like some kind of unnatural disaster by the President of the United States even as Puerto Rico was drowning because of an authentic natural disaster. At the time we were supposed to believe that any American football player taking a knee during the national anthem made him an ingrate. Now the mayor of San Juan is called an ingrate for not genuflecting in front of the same President.

Carmen Yulin Cruz isn’t an ingrate, or an opportunist, or political grandstander. She isn’t somebody who deserved to get trolled on social media because she was desperate to get help for her city and its people. She sure isn’t a tool of the Democratic Party. She happens to be a hero of her people. American people.

You don’t pick a fight with somebody like that. No. You stand with somebody like that at a time like this, even knowing full well that she has clearly committed a crime far worse, at least in Donald Trump’s mind, than disrespecting the flag.

Read the rest here.

Paul Krugman’s Scathing Critique of Trump’s Narcissism


In case you haven’t seen it yet, here is a taste of economist Paul Krugman’s New York Times column:

According to a new Quinnipiac poll, a majority of Americans believe that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. That’s pretty remarkable. But you have to wonder how much higher the number would be if people really knew what’s going on.

For the trouble with Trump isn’t just what he’s doing, but what he isn’t. In his mind, it’s all about him — and while he’s stroking his fragile ego, basic functions of government are being neglected or worse.

Let’s talk about two stories that might seem separate: the deadly neglect of Puerto Rico, and the ongoing sabotage of American health care. What these stories have in common is that millions of Americans are going to suffer, and hundreds if not thousands die, because Trump and his officials are too self-centered to do their jobs.

Krugman concludes: “In short, Trump truly is unfit for this or any high office. And the damage caused by his unfitness will just keep growing.”

Read the entire piece here.

Indeed, there are just some people who do not have the moral fortitude or temperament to be a leader.  Trump clearly falls into this category.

Religious Theories on Hurricane Irma


Avi Selk has them all covered at The Washington Post:

A taste:

To dive into the wide-ranging and rarely coherent collection of theories that ascribe motive — be it satanic, godly, Gaian or otherwise — to the movements of Hurricane Irma is to risk being immediately overwhelmed by them. They are endless and everywhere, from the mouth of Kirk Cameron to a mass prayer on Periscope, in which thousands commanded demons to vacate the eye of the storm.

We may as well start on the secular end of this thought spectrum — specifically with that thing Jennifer Lawrence said.

“You know,” she said, “you’re watching these hurricanes now, and it’s really hard, especially while promoting this movie, not to feel Mother Nature’s rage.”

Lawrence was referring to a movie she’d just starred in, which she was talking up in an otherwise innocuous interview with Channel 4 last week when the host asked her about the election of President Trump, and the enduring skepticism about climate change. The actress lamented both — then brought up from nowhere the consequential rage of the sentient planet.

She took a drubbing. For “blaming powerful hurricanes on Trump,” as one critic put it. Or for blaming them on climate change, as the antiabortion activist Randall Terry interpreted her remark, before suggesting another mover of storms:

“These hurricanes are not the result of global warming; they are the Judgment of God because of the innocent blood crying to Him for vengeance,” Terry wrote on Christian Newswire.

Hurricanes for abortions, then. And from this point on in our exploration, God will be dragged into nearly every wild explanation of Hurricane Irma, or Hurricane Harvey before it, or the solar eclipse before that — or the coincidence of all of them, as the more apocalyptic theories elaborate upon.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course none of this new.  Check out these eighteenth-century Puritan/Congregationalist earthquake sermons.



American Association for State and Local History Opens “Harvey Cultural Relief Fund”


Here it is what you need to know to help:

As Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath continue to unfold on the Gulf Coast of Texas, AASLH staff, Council, and members are preparing to travel to the Lone Star State for #AASLH17 in Austin on September 6-9. The location of the 2017 Annual Meeting allows us the perfect opportunity to give back to our host state and its cultural institutions in a time of great need.

By the time the Annual Meeting kicks off in Texas next week, we still may not know the full extent of the damage to museums and history organizations in the path of the storm. We do, however, have the ability to leave resources behind after we depart to aid our colleagues as they rebuild.

We invite you to contribute to the AASLH Hurricane Harvey Cultural Relief Fund. You can donate online, by mail, or in-person at the AASLH Annual Meeting. All funds collected between August 29 and September 15 will be given to one of our Texas partners to be distributed to cultural organizations hit hard by the storm.

Click one of the links below to donate today or bring your donation with you to the Annual Meeting and you can leave it at the AASLH Registration Desk.

Give Online   Give by Mail

Thank you for helping our Texas colleagues in their time of need.

The New Orleans Superdome Is Now a National Historical Site


It was the place where thousands of New Orleans residents sought shelter during Hurricane Katrina.  It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Here is a taste of a piece at CNN:

The National Register designation includes protections and tax benefits for the property, but the state agency that manages the dome cited concerns that the status could slow down or hamper improvement efforts.

In a statement, Shawn Bridgewater, an attorney for the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, said the governing authority will “continue to investigate the effects, if any, on our ongoing obligation to maintain the Superdome as a world-class venue. Our evaluation is focused on ensuring that the Superdome’s operations and future capital maintenance and improvements are not impacted as we continue the stadium’s legacy.”

More than 90,000 locations are on the National Register, including sites from the fabric of everyday American life, such as post offices, old factories and historic neighborhoods, as well as venues with historical importance, such as Dallas’ Dealey Plaza, the scene of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and the Ohio prison made famous in the 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption.”

The dome was added to the register last month after the unanimous approval from the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development’s Division of Historic Preservation and then the U.S. Department of the Interior’s OK.


The Jersey Shore: Six Months After Sandy

Joe Scarborough devoted some time on “Morning Joe” to the Jersey Shore.  (They are positioned in front of the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park).  Six months ago Hurricane Sandy ripped through this area.  This video reports on the slow-moving recovery efforts:

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Great line in this next video by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: “Presidential politics was not on my mind that day.”

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I wonder how much time Jon Meacham has spent in the working-class shore towns of Seaside Heights and Asbury Park?  I respect Meacham’s historical works on American religion, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson, but how much does he know about the Jersey Shore?

Remembering Ocean Beach, New Jersey

Growing up in northern New Jersey, I spent a week or two every summer at the Jersey shore community of Ocean Beach.  (I have written/posted about Ocean Beach and the surrounding area here and here and here and here). It was a working class shore community–the cottages were tiny and affordable.  We always planned our trip for the third week of August, just before school started.  My extended family would “go down” for the week and since we rented neighboring houses it was like a huge reunion filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.  In the morning we ate “buns” from the local bakery, played miniature golf, and drank a lot of Yoo Hoo.  We would spend the afternoon swimming in the Atlantic and playing in the sand.  At night we would go out to dinner, fly kites on the beach, or visit the Seaside Heights boardwalk.

Until a couple of years ago my family and I would spend a long Fall weekend (usually during my Fall Break) at Ocean Beach holed up in a 650-square foot ocean-front cottage.  For about $500 (split between me and my brother) my kids could explore a virtually empty beach (See picture above right).  We would take them out of school for a couple of days, telling their teachers that it was an “educational” trip focused on “marine science.” We would fly kites, eat pizza, go to the boardwalk, drink Yoo Hoo, search for shells, and, if the course was still open, play miniature golf. I will always have the memories of my daughters standing before the mighty Atlantic with strict orders from their mother not to get wet, and then watch them return to the house a few hours later drenched from head to toe with salt water and freezing from the late afternoon Autumn chill.

I have not been to Ocean Beach since Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey coast, but I was saddened to read this story about the ways Sandy has changed this seaside community forever.  Here is a taste:

The beak of the excavator ripped at Angela Serio’s house as if it were made of cardboard.

Within minutes, the oceanfront home she and her husband owned for the past five years in the Ocean Beach section of Toms River was reduced to a 15-foot-high pile of splinters. Four hours later, only an empty lot remained where the cottage had stood watch over the ocean for nearly half a century.

With each post-Sandy demolition, tight-knit communities like Ocean Beach are losing more than individual homes. With their neat rows of one-story bungalows on narrow sand roads tucked between developments of palatial homes, these towns are the last to embody the old-time Jersey Shore.

Leveling these decades-old homes is a bit like stripping the Jersey Shore of part of its neighborhood history.

The family of Angela Serio’s husband scrimped and saved for their tiny bit of Jersey Shore paradise and spent summers in this quaint community for more than four decades. Now their house is just one more victim of Hurricane Sandy. With about half of the 2,000 homes in the four Ocean Beach communities (Ocean Beach I, II and III and Ocean Beach Shores) expected to be razed, residents are wondering if Sandy was a shove into the 21st century for these enclaves.

The Levittown of the Jersey shore

“This is a throwback to what the Jersey Shore once was. People love it. People come down … rent the same house year after year … so they want it to remain the same. They don’t want it to change,” said John McDonough, whose grandfather built Ocean Beach between 1946 and 1967. “There’s no question five or six years from now this place won’t look the same.”

A pretty typical Ocean Beach cottage in the wake of Sandy

Is the GOP "Stiffing" Its Own?

By failing to vote on the $60 billion relief package for the New Jersey and New York victims of Hurricane Sandy, Alec MacGillis observes that the GOP is alienating some of the most concentrated pockets of Republican voters in these states.  He reminds us that in 2012 Obama lost to Romney in the coastal counties of Monmouth and Ocean, two of the regions hit hardest by Sandy.  And though Obama won easily in New York City, Romney carried those parts of Staten Island and Long Island hit hardest by the hurricane.

Read all about it.

Christie and Springsteen: A Friendship Blooms!

I can see it now.  It’s January 2016.  The GOP candidates for president are stumping through Iowa.  Rick Santorum takes out a television ad connecting his GOP primary rival, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, to the  rock ‘n’ roll icon Bruce Springsteen.  It might go something like this (cue ominous-sounding announcer guy with a deep voice):

“Republicans of Iowa:  Can you really trust a man who pals around with left-wing progressive musicians like Bruce Springsteen?  Not only did Chris Christie and Springsteen hug one another, but Christie also accepted Springsteen’s gesture of friendship!” Rick Santorum has never been to a Springsteen concert and does not even own one of his albums. 

I am Rick Santorum and I have approved this message.

OK, perhaps this is a bit over the top, but I did get a kick out of the fact that Christie, a governor who is making friends across the aisle in the wake of hurricane Sandy, has now gotten the approval of his rock ‘n’ roll hero.

Here is a taste from an article on the Christie-Springsteen-Obama bromance:

Gov. Chris Christie wept tears of joy Friday night when his no-nonsense response to Hurricane Sandy earned him what decades of obsession had not: Bruce Springsteen’s friendship.

“We hugged. He told me, ‘It’s official. We’re friends.’” Christie said today during a news conference after visiting a shelter at Bolger Middle School.

Christie and the Boss talked for a while Friday night at a telethon NBC held to raise money for victims of the worst hurricane ever to hit New Jersey. Christie said Springsteen told him he was proud of the job he was doing — a sentiment he also expressed Wednesday on stage in Rochester, N.Y.

“And I’ll treasure it forever,” Christie said, adding: “It was a lot of fun for me. It was the best part of my week on the social side for sure.”

President Obama today facilitated another chat between the quintessential Jersey boys.

“I told the President today actually that the hug was great and when we got home there was a lot of weeping because of the hug,” Christie said, recounting his now daily chat with Obama. “And the President asked why and I said, ‘To be honest, I was the one who was weeping. Everybody else was fine.’ ”

Why Are Chris Christie and Barack Obama Getting Along So Well?

In case you haven’t heard, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Republican, has been praising Barack Obama for his handling of hurricane Sandy. According to Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic, Christie’s new found love for Obama may have something to do with Bruce Springsteen.  Here is a taste of Goldberg’s post:

Here are three theories about Christie:

1) The first, most benign theory: Christie, in my experience, is a deeply emotional and highly sentimental man, and he is torn-up about the devastation along the Jersey Shore. The support he’s received from President Obama — the support he receives from anyone — at such a wrenching moment, makes him inordinately grateful. And President Obama has been extremely attentive.

2) To add to Maureen’s theory, Christie is an impatient guy, and the idea of running in 2016 is much more appealing to him than running in 2020. He will have faded from memory by 2020, in any case; plus Paul Ryan, who will have been vice president for four or eight years, would be a formidable challenger. For 2016, Christie is in the top-tier of Republican candidates. In 2020, who knows?

3) Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen. (This story, by yours truly, explains why.)  Bruce Springsteen loves Barack Obama. Bruce Springsteen does not love Chris Christie. Being overtly supportive of Barack Obama might get Chris Christie his holy grail: The approval of Springsteen, even a meeting with him. Believe me — he’d rather meet with Springsteen than with Obama, or anyone else.