De-Provincializing Development

By Kim Fortun (UC Irvine)

This entry in our “De-Provincializing Development” series examines SDG #11: Climate Change.

Too often, disaster is cast as a surprise, as coming like a thief in the night. The “resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters,” which is one target of SDG #13, will require better, more actionable characterizations—supporting improved disaster literacies and unprecedented levels of coordination within and across scales of government. SDG #13 focuses on the need to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Consider the example of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the coast of Texas on August 25, 2017. Recurrently and emphatically, Harvey was characterized as a surprise, as an aberration, and as no test for the future. I heard this repeatedly during a trip to Texas a few weeks after the storm. In Houston and along the coast of Texas, I witnessed remarkable material damage and astounding piles of debris.

In Port Aransas, near where the storm made landfall, winds reached 130 miles an hour. Texas was not adequately prepared for the wind. Roofs came off across the region, even at the University of Texas Marine Science Research Center, in Port Aransas, which sits on a spit of land literally abreast of the sea. Texas was even less prepared for the rain and floods. In part, this was because so many expected the culprit to be wind—despite warnings otherwise. When Harvey stalled over Texas, it dumped 50 inches of rain over a few days, making it the biggest rainstorm in US history: a so-called 500-year storm. But Houston has had three 500-year storms in as many years.


During Hurricane Harvey, the University of Texas Marine Science Institute suffered 130 mph winds, which obliterated six buildings and damaged the full campus beyond use. The institute is the largest employer in Port Aransas, Texas. (Source:

Clearly, our ways of thinking and talking about risk are not keeping up with its reality. A popular weather blog describes the remarkably accurate forecasting prior to Harvey, insisting that this was a failure to comprehend, not a failure to forecast. Building capacity to design, run, make sense of, and communicate risk models is clearly a challenge ahead—especially because for many people, things are supposed to be directly observable (“with the naked eye”) and obvious or they don’t have standing. Refusal to see or acknowledge risks that are only observable with technical prosthetics contributes to disaster vulnerability.

The havoc wrought by Harvey’s floods also resulted from huge coordination failures. Harvey flooding in west Houston is illustrative. In the 1940s, the US Army Corp of Engineers built the Addicks and Barker dams and reservoirs as flood protection for the City of Houston, then twenty miles away. Since then, the population of Houston has grown dramatically, with few checks on real estate development (and associated spread of impervious ground cover). Homes were even built within the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which were promoted as health-making green spaces. Development was aggressive rather than regulated. And many people that live in the neighborhood weren’t told that they were in an area designed to flood. Even real estate agents claimed they didn’t know.

Officials insisted that people had to know about the flood risk, since the dams were “right there.” But given the size of the water catchment area, “right there” could be a few miles away. Further, the “dams” don’t look like dams; they are grass-covered berms that border playing fields and park spaces—spaces I went to as a child for family picnics. When I toured the area after Harvey, I drove by familiar spaces, surrounded by development. Though watching for “the dams,” I didn’t even realize when we drove over them. Learning to see what lies below the surface is a critical part of disaster literacy.


Gutted lab at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute after its roof failed during Hurricane Harvey. One laboratory building reopened fall 2018. The full campus remains closed. (Photograph by Scott Knowles)

County officials claimed that the City of Houston was responsible for regulating development inside the reservoirs. The city’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, insisted otherwise, blaming the county for mismanagement. Rice University civil engineer Phil Bedient insists that flood control should be treated as a regional problem, but that it clearly isn’t, noting that the “the city doesn’t talk to the county. The county certainly doesn’t know how to deal with the Corps of Engineers. . . . Nobody’s in charge” (ProPublica, October 12, 2017).

The coordination failures that I describe here are not new news. They have been widely and well reported and visualized.  In 2015, for example, Texas Monthly reported on “The Problem with 100-Year Floods,” clearly recognizing issues with entrenched ways of thinking, talking about, and acting on Houston’s flood vulnerability. In March 2016, Grist (with ProPublica and the Texas Tribune), published “Houston Is a Sitting Duck for the Next Big Hurricane: Why Isn’t Texas Ready? After the storm, the New York Times aptly described how “Houston’s Growth Created the Perfect Flood Conditions.” The American Society of Civil Engineers has also highlighted the importance of built-in risks, giving Texas’s infrastructure a “C-“ grade, stating that it is particularly “poorly equipped to deal with environmental change as Texas continues to grow.”

These coordination failures in Houston are difficult to fix. They index political economic corruption and profoundly unsophisticated ideas about durable economic development. They also index social and cultural incapacity—which is insufficiently accounted for in usual ways of measuring disaster reduction and preparedness. And social and cultural capacity, in turn, depend on legal scaffolding, communications infrastructure, and political will—which only then can be trained on the technical problems at hand. As Wired magazine reported, in Harvey, imperfect engineering met a perfect storm. But the problems far exceed the technological.

Debris lining a residential street in Houston a few weeks after Hurricane Harvey. (Photograph by Scott Knowles) Debris pile labeled as “private property”—though awaiting pick-up as trash. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the line separating “looting” and “resourcefulness” was interpreted very differently—and points to the need to both understand and reconfigure ways people think property, propriety, and sharing in disaster contexts. (Photograph by Scott Knowles)

Anthropologists and kin can study the social dynamics that contribute to these kinds of coordination failures and the cultural formations that makes them unaccountable. We also can study what did work—building codes (in the city of Seabrook, for example, and in some newer neighborhoods in Houston); investments in infrastructure, like the submarine doors installed to protect the tunnels linking Houston’s Medical Center; and many different relief efforts. We also need far-reaching conceptual work to suggest ways of rethinking private property, attachments to place, the character of usable knowledge, the role of government at different scales, and the social contracts that can justly bind societies in decades to come. New orders of things are indeed in order.

Part of the challenge is in creating public knowledge infrastructure attuned to what works against disaster literacy, planning, and accountability. Imagining a disaster report card—rather like the infrastructure report card released annually by civil engineerswith marks for social, cultural, political economic, and legal robustness is a place to start. If crudely reductive and standardized, such marks would simply (sic) miss the mark. But what else could they look like? How might anthropological knowledge supplement other efforts to call out disaster vulnerability and political responsibility. We need to figure this out—focusing on the United States as well as elsewhere, pulling academic insight into practice. Disaster resilience and climate change adaptive capacity will depend on it.

Fortun, Kim. 2018. “Anthropology and Disaster Risk Reduction.” American Anthropologist website, December 18.

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