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Professors discuss human interference in natural disasters

By Raena Doty

Asst. Arts & Features Editor

A panel of FSU professors came together in the Alumni Room April 6 to host a panel called “Natural Disasters are NOT Natural.”

Gathering together information from the fields of sociology, ecology, and economics, the panel aimed to educate on how “natural disasters” like earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes are created and made worse by man-made matters like politics.

Kaan Agartan, professor of sociology & criminology, led the panel and opened the discussion.

“Maybe it’s time to listen to those folks in the racial justice movements, environmental movements, Indigenous peoples’ rights movements, anti-capitalist folks, when they’re saying, ‘We need a new world,’” Agartan said.

The first presenter was Zeynep Gönen, professor of sociology & criminology. She talked primarily about the recent earthquake in Türkiye.

Gönen explained that Türkiye is on a fault line that makes the country susceptible to damage from earthquakes, and while the earthquakes are unpreventable, the damage was very preventable.

She said while approximately 57,000 deaths were recorded, unofficial predictions estimate that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people died, and 14 million people were displaced from homes.

“This incredible loss was not natural at all,” she said.

She said corruption in Türkiye’s neoliberal authoritarian government made the damage worse and the number of deaths higher than they needed to be.

Gönen defined “neoliberalism” as a political economic ideology that started to appear in the 1970s after economic strife, and said neoliberal governments tend to favor the free market.

She said Türkiye experienced a large earthquake not very long ago, in 1999, which killed approximately 17,000 people. After the earthquake, the government began collecting a special communications tax, commonly known as the earthquake tax, which generated $36.5 billion between when it was created and today.

However, this money was not put to use toward strengthening infrastructure and preventing tragedy in the face of an earthquake, Gönen said.

She also said the response after the 2023 earthquake was not as effective as it should have been, and emergency responders did not appear in the first 48 hours of the disaster.

Gönen projected a picture on the screen for everyone to see, which depicted Turkish protesters of the government after the recent earthquake. In the photo, people held a sign that said, in Turkish, “This is not an earthquake, this is a massacre,” she said.

The next professor to present was Xavier Guadalupe-Diaz, professor of criminology & sociology, who spoke primarily about Hurricane Maria, the 2017 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico.

Guadalupe-Diaz, who is Puerto Rican, began his presentation with a summary of the colonial history of Puerto Rico. He explained Puerto Rico was first colonized by Spain, and then later the United States “acquired” it in 1898.

He said though people born in Puerto Rico are considered U.S. citizens, a citizen who lives on the island does not get voting representation in the federal government or the right to vote for the president.

Laws limiting Puerto Rican expression date back to the early 20th century, when Gag Law made it illegal to fly the Puerto Rican flag, Guadalupe-Diaz said.

He said the U.S. government removed some tax exemptions for Puerto Rico in 1996, which may have been made possible by the lack of Puerto Rican representation in Congress. He added the Puerto Rican government needed to borrow more to keep the government going, which eventually led to Puerto Rican debt surpassing the gross national product.

Because of this, Puerto Rico was in debt when Hurricane Maria hit, and the natural disaster was much worse than it might have otherwise been, he said.

Guadalupe-Diaz said he still has family in Puerto Rico, and he visits them every year. He showed pictures he took at his grandmother’s house in Puerto Rico in July 2017, a few months before the hurricane hit, then pictures of his grandmother’s house from August after the storm.

The difference was immense - after the hurricane, plants covered the yard and there was junk scattered all over the area.

“This is the same yard,” he said. “It’s unrecognizable. Maria happens and Puerto Rico loses power, and water, and cell service. I wasn’t able to communicate with relatives for a really long time,” he said.

Next to present was Vandana Singh, an environment, society & sustainability professor. She had a slightly different take than Gönen and Guadalupe-Diaz - rather than discussing the socioeconomic factors that can make a tragedy worse after the fact, she took a scientific approach, talking about how climate change can contribute to the severity of a natural disaster in the first place.

“Not all hurricanes are necessarily natural,” she said.

She shared statistics on the screen that showed the contribution climate change makes to extreme weather events, extreme heat, extreme rainfall, and extreme drought. In all studies conducted on these four types of natural disasters, the majority of them found climate change made the events more intense and/or more likely.

Singh connected these events to what Gönen said, and added that neoliberal governments often contributed more to climate change. She showed a video graphic of different countries’ contribution to climate change, which showed that the U.S. and China are the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions.

The final presenter was Luis Rosero, an accounting, economics, and finance professor. He discussed the way natural disasters may be made better or worse by local, national, or international economies.

He began with some statistics about how natural disasters are more deadly for low-income countries than high-income countries. While statistics about where natural disasters hit were about balanced between countries of different income levels, the number of deaths due to natural disasters was much higher in low-income countries.

He also shared statistics showing that though high-income countries tend to pay more gross dollars while recovering from natural disasters, low-income countries generally lose a higher percentage of their gross domestic product due to natural disasters than high-income countries.

Rosero said people in low-income countries generally don’t pay for insurance due to a number of factors. He said insurance isn’t always available in low-income countries, and people who don’t make a lot of money can’t always justify the cost of insurance.

When answering the question of “why” this happens, Rosero once again went back to neoliberalism and capitalism.

“A lot of these economies have been set up in this very destructive nature,” he said. “We basically exploit not just the workers, but we also exploit nature.

“This, obviously, is problematic, because it creates these constant races for resources. And as countries are continuously racing to extract resources, they don’t necessarily do it in the most environmentally friendly way,” he added.

The panel ended on a more positive note as they discussed how people came together to engage in collective action in response to these tragedies.

“These disasters and subsequent flaws … really galvanized political engagement and they brought everybody together,” Guadalupe-Diaz said.

Singh said many of the tragedies saw “so-called ‘ordinary’ people” collecting and acting together, and this action applied on a wider scale would make the world better.

“It restores your faith in human nature,” Singh said.

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