Disasters Course: Choose Your Own Disaster

In a comment of no more than 750-1000 words, discuss the disaster you chose to research and make an argument about its root cause.

Be sure to include  answers to the following somewhere within your essay: What type of a disaster is the disaster you chose (i.e. what was its root cause)? What does studying this particular disaster tell us that we wouldn’t have known from simply hearing about the disaster in the news as it was happening? How did your disaster look different when viewed through contemporaneous news sources, versus academic sources that studied the disaster after the fact?  How does the disaster you chose fit with in with, or differ from, other disasters that we’ve looked at in class? Why is it (or why isn’t it) important?

Be specific in supporting your argument with evidence—cite your sources using parenthetical citations in the text of your essay, or–if you prefer–by using endnotes. Due by 10pm on Nov 24th. Please leave an extra line of whitespace between each of your papragraphs for formatting (otherwise the paragraphs run together).


  1. Yishan Huang

    I chose Hurricane Katrina because it’s the deadliest hurricane in U.S history and still exerts influence on today’s world. It’s clear that the storm itself was a natural disaster in which the force of nature is overwhelming. However, every disaster can reflect multiple facets of problems and changes in the society. As I was searching the London Times, interesting things began to surface. Instead of focusing on the storm, I would like to pay more attention to the aftermath of Katrina and analyze how things could have been better.

    I think that the root cause of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina was mismanagement by government and that Katrina’s aftermath was a public health disaster.

    During the storm, the levees in the city New Orleans were breached and led to the flooding of the city. The flood was more than water rushing into the city, it also mixed everything along its way together. According to the report entitled “Changes into a toxic wasteland” published September 2nd, 2005, “Health and construction experts said that the scale of devastation caused particularly by the toxic flood water engulfing the city, was unprecedented in US history.” The chemicals and bacteria threatened the lives of people who remained in the city and worsened the damage of Katrina. However, according to the officials of New Orleans, they had been planning for a big disaster for years and never thought the levees would be breached. That is quite odd because it seems those life-saving levees were not tested in case of emergency and no other backup plans were there in preparing for a big disaster. In other words, the city could have avoided being flooded by toxic water and fewer people would have suffered from a public health crisis.

    On the other hand, there was a period of anarchy right after the storm in the city of New Orleans. People who remained in the city became so angry with the unbearable living conditions and the long wait for rescue, they started breaking into stores and shooting others. The city was in a mess. One may wonder why there were still residents in the city. As a matter of fact, the evacuation plan was to some extent a failure because the government forgot or ignored the poor people in the city. Also, the National Guardsmen were not in place and it took four days for troops to arrive at the city. As we know, the majority of residents in New Orleans are African American and one fifth of them live at or below the poverty line, and many were elderly and sick. “But after years of anticipating a hurricane, officials in effect ignored that this ‘low-mobility’ population would have neither the money nor the transport to flee,” noted the London Times report “Catastrophic mistakes by the planners who forgot city’s poor” on September 3rd, 2005. They were left in the “wasteland” in desperation.

    From all the evidence above and reviewing what I have learnt in the Fukushima disaster, I came to the conclusion that things may not have been that bad if the city planners and construction designers had been more thoughtful and really cared about the poor and minority communities. In both cases, the damage of the disaster was underestimated by the designers and the built environment became vulnerable during the storm. Nature’s force is overwhelming sometimes, but we can still do better in damage control during and after the disaster as long as enough time and effort are devoted. Though different conditions will occur in the same kind of disasters, thoughtful backup plans and high efficiency in carrying out the plans are the keys to facing the danger.

    If I hadn’t used the source of London Times and merely looked at the disaster via mass media, I may have gotten more details about the disaster but not as much chance to think. One thing about major newspaper sources collected in a full-text searchable academic database, especially ones from another country, is that they show things in a comprehensive way and show them in a less biased light to the audience. My attention could have been drawn to the heart-breaking videos and pictures on TV, thus distracting me from having time to study the root cause and to find out why the U.S. government was actually not doing as good a job as the television said.

  2. chemedin

    The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 16th, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located in Ukraine. The plant was under direct jurisdiction of the central authorities of the Soviet Union, so the plant was government run. The disaster was caused by a fire and then an explosion that released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The particles spread over much of western USSR and Europe. This disaster is only one of two nuclear disasters to be rated as a level seven. The official Soviet death count is 31, but there have been long-term effects such as cancers and deformities, so the actual count is unknown.

    Official reports blame the cause of the disaster on the power plant operators, similar to the Windscale disaster. The plant operators were running a test of the turbine generator under run-down conditions. To speed up this test, most of the technical protection systems were turned off. Most notable was the Emergency Core Cooling System, disallowing the operators from controlling the reaction if the temperature rose too much, which subsequently did happen. Despite what the official reports say, the real reason for the disaster were catastrophic design flaws. The first flaw was that the reactor had an extremely large positive void coefficient of reactivity. This meant that when stem bubbles formed in the coolant, the reaction sped up instead of slowing down. Most nuclear reactors at the time had the opposite, more preferable behavior. The second flaw was that the control rods were too short. This also caused the reaction to initially speed up if activated to control the reaction.

    At first glance it appeared that the design flaws may have occurred because of political reasons. The Windscale and Challenger disasters occurred because of this reason. Experts were ignored and timelines were rushed despite safety concerns in pursuit of the final goals. However, upon further examination, it can be seen that this disaster was caused by the Soviet attitude toward safety. In a letter to the editor from a Times of London article, a British citizen said they took a trip to Serbia on a Soviet plane. The passenger noticed that the safety belts were all tied behind the seats. The passenger alerted the hostess that he had wanted to use the belts. The response he received was “Don’t worry, our Soviet pilots are so competent you won’t need it (III).” This shows the Soviets lack of safety concern and a smugness toward safety. Another startling admission to the Soviet attitude toward safety is the slow release of information on the extent of the disaster. This caused journalists to mistrust experts, which led to the general public mistrusting experts as well. This caused “radiophobia”, the fear of radiation, throughout the USSR and Europe. As a result, several abortions were requested and performed for thousands of healthy, wanted pregnancies due to panic and false rumors. This was so widespread that even doctors didn’t know what to believe. Radiophobia even spread as far as Greece and Italy, where there was a large spike in abortions (I). Radiation concerns also caused several women to refuse to feed their children milk. That led many children to develop rickets, which is a deficiency of Vitamin D, phosphorous and calcium, leading to a softening of the bones (II). All these examples show how the Soviets were not at all concerned with safety.

    Something interesting about the disaster is the British response. They responded with a smugness toward their safety record, despite Windscale only occurring 30 years prior (III). Three Mile Island had occurred seven years prior to Chernobyl, so at the time the British had the best safety record (III). Because of this, many British citizens began to call for more information to be released from the Soviets about the disaster. It was however pointed out in a Times of London article that the same slow release of information also occurred with Windscale. The reason behind this was because of the strong military motives behind Windscale (III). That could have also been the case for Chernobyl. 1986 was toward the end of the Cold War period, which meant the disaster occurred during Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, meaning more openness and transparency of the government. The slow release of information about Chernobyl is in stark contrast to this policy. This does support the theory that Chernobyl may have had military ties or was being used for something else other than generating nuclear power. The true motives behind Windscale were not revealed until several years after the disaster, and the real cause took just as long to be revealed too. This again could be the case for Chernobyl. It may be yet to be revealed about any ulterior motives behind Chernobyl. Perhaps this information has never been released to keep tensions between nuclear powers calm. Or, perhaps research being conducted there is being carried out at another Russian nuclear facility.

    I – Chernobyl: how Europe reacted, 1987
    II – Russia comes clean on extent of Chernobyl panic, 1987
    III – Ramifications of nuclear disaster, 1986

  3. Kate Kendall

    The Dust Bowl Era was a period of severe dust storms that occurred throughout the 1930s. The storms made life on the plains unimaginable and some storms blew dirt and debris all the way to the Atlantic ocean. While a quick look into this disaster would suggest that the extensive dust storms were caused by a few unfortunate environmental factors, a deeper analysis of the situation reveals an economic root cause.

    Between 1932 and 1938 an exceptionally dry period occurred across the great plains specifically towards the south. The dry climate accompanied with extreme heat created unhealthy conditions for growing crops. While these two factors alone would cause a disruption in food production, a dilemma in itself, the true disaster comes from the agricultural decisions that occurred prior to these unfortunate environmental instances.

    Prior to the Dust Bowl Era Americans were living in an economic upswing. The United States had just come out of a successful war and people were in support of economic development and production. Land in the midwest was looked at as limitless and inexhaustible. It was believed that if the land had the ability to produce the crop, then the crop should be produced in order to fulfill the economic goals of the farmers.

    One of the primary factors that reveal an economic root cause was the abundance of small, privately owned farms. Because there were many small farms rather than a couple of large commercial farms, farmers wanted to stretch their land as far as possible to bring in their target revenue. Farm owners removed all non-crop foliage from their land in order to make more room for plants that they could harvest and in turn make a profit from. Forests and prairie grasses were cut from properties. While these plants were not able to create a profit for the farmers, they did have a very important purpose in the agricultural process. Low lying plants acted as an anchor for soil, keeping it packed into the Earth and filled with nutrients. tall forest trees were ideal for blocking the crops from the harsh winds of the flatland. By removing both of these essential types of plants farmers created a larger area for growing crops but also left their profitable harvests vulnerable to the elements.

    While farmers pushed the land to accommodate the maximum amount of crop allowed, they also chose their product based on its structure. Farmers often chose to plant wheat because it was thought to be drought proof. Rather than rotate their crops each year in order to keep the soil nutrient filled, economically driven farmers continued to plant wheat because they knew that it would most likely survive the most harsh conditions. During the war a popular agricultural slogan was “wheat wins wars”. This shows that the government and farmers pushed to increase their wheat production in order to accommodate the war efforts. This over-cultivation of land in an effort to grow profitable crops depleted the soil of nutrients and in turn allowed the dust to be easily blown in the storms of the 30s.

    While the dust storms alone would be considered a tragedy, the events occurring parallel to the storms make this event even worse. The Dust Bowl Era coincides with the Great Depression, the worst economic collapse in the 20th century. Because farms were rendered useless during the worst of the storms, out of work farmers added to the unemployed work force. People were moved to Western states in order to avoid the dangers of living in the dust bowl only to find that the government had little money to accommodate them. Midwesterners were put up in shanty towns with little to no access to food and resources. Because 841 counties in 13 different states were affected by the storms only 3/5 of the normal food production occurred adding to the widespread food shortage that occurred during the Great Depression.

    In an effort to help those affected by the Dust Bowl storms the government purchased over 1 million acres of land at 2 dollars per acre. This newly purchased land was used to plant new forests and grazing land in order to resettle and renew the soil. As a part of the New Deal workers were hired to plant these forests which helped alleviate some of the unemployment in the nation. Overall, about $10,000,000 was spent on improvements to the area affected by the dust storms.

    The Dust Bowl is a tragedy that should be studied more in depth because it is more complex than it seems. Because many of the factors that led to the significance of the storms were due to American’s economic demands it can be considered an economic tragedy. It called attention to America’s over consumption and lack of agricultural regulation. While initially overambitious economic goals were part of the reason the dust storms were so bad, the economic collapse was the reason these storms truly hurt Americans.


    Combating Drought In The “Dust Bowl”.
    The Times (London, England), Saturday, Feb 29, 1936; pg. 11; Issue 47311.
    From Prairie to Dust.
    The Times (London, England), Friday, Jul 10, 1936; pg. 17; Issue 47423.
    Middle West “Dust Bowl” Refugees.
    The Times (London, England), Monday, Jul 19, 1937; pg. 13; Issue 47740.
    Smith, R. (2007). Saving the Dust Bowl: “Big Hugh” Bennett’s Triumph over Tragedy. History Teacher, 41(1), 65-95.
    The Dust Bowl.
    The Times (London, England), Thursday, Aug 27, 1936; pg. 13; Issue 47464.

  4. Sara Glade

    The Three Gorges Dam is considered by the Chinese government as a historic engineering feat on par with the Great Wall of China. It is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world at 22500 MW, and was completed in July 2012. (1) The dam has caused much controversy because while providing a large amount of energy, the dam has already displaced over a million people, caused environmental damage, and destroyed ancient cultural sites. (1) The Chinese communist government’s tight control of both media and its citizens allowed for the Three Gorges Dam to be built in spite of serious concerns from experts that the dam was a disaster in the making.

    The Three Gorges Dam blocks the course of the 3900-mile Yangtze River in China. (3) Dr. Sun Yaf-sen, founder of modern China, proposed the project in 1919. (3)The project remained dormant until Li Peng, unpopular prime minister took it on as his “pet project” to gain popularity among the people. As such it was entirely off limits to public debate and criticism. (3)

    The benefits of the project were presented by Peng as clean and abundant energy that would supply 10% of China’s energy needs and save 50 million tons of coal per year. (1) However, the dark truths of the project were not as clearly presented. Over 1 million people were forced to relocate due to massive upstream flooding. Affected areas included 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1352 villages. (1) Those affected were forced to move all over China, often far from where they originally lived. Local government officials oftentimes stole the compensation promised to people evacuating their homes. Besides flooding homes and cities, the upstream flooding also destroyed 45 significant archeological and cultural sites. (1)

    The damming of the Yangtze has caused huge environmental impact. First off, it has killed many already endangered species such as the Baiji dolphin and Tangtze alligator. (4) The threat of landslides is increasing, and erosion and sedimentation is common upstream where the absence of silt will lead to more flooding. The dam sits on a seismic fault, which has the potential to trigger earthquakes. A recent drought is being blamed on the dam as well. (7) Many justly argue that the government has put environmental issues at the bottom of their priority list. (4) Some environmentalists have expressed fear that the Chinese government was using a new technology that hasn’t been tried and tested. (4)

    There were countless early warnings that the dam would lead to disaster, but most were choked by a controlling Chinese government. In 1992, Li Peng, current prime minister and supporter of the Dam, presented the project to the Chinese parliament to vote on. (6) The Chinese parliament, typically a passive group that votes in line with the Prime minister, took issue with the dam. Huang Shunxiang, a member of parliament, stood up and shouted his objections to the dam arguing that it would prove to be a huge mistake. In the end over a third did not vote in favor of the dam. (6) The Chinese news paralleled Peng’s apathy to Shunxiang’s outbreak whereas foreign newscasters ate up the controversial story.

    In 1996, the US bank refused funds for the project based on lobbying from environmental groups. (5) Clinton, US president at the time, was forced to comply. The US government understood the risks of the project and expressed them to China, yet the project went forward nonetheless. Chinese citizens did not have the same political sway as US citizens, so were unable to prevent the government’s actions from taking place. Dai Qing, an outspoken environmentalist in China, argued as early as 1997 that the dam was “not an engineering project, but a disaster which needs to stopped immediately”. (3) For her opinions, the Chinese government jailed her for ten months. When she wrote a book about the dam, it was silenced along with any sort of public debate. By controlling the media and restricting information, the government could control public opinion and go forward with their plans despite the obvious impacts on the environment and human life. (3)

    The Three Gorges Dam disaster also contradicts a trend seen in the western world of public response and government action. For example, Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” were used as tools to round up public opinion on big issues in the US. The Chinese government’s monopoly on media restricts this from occurring. The people hear what the government allows them to, and because of this the government never has to own up to its mistakes. The government could effectively silence environmentalists’ concerns and limit what Chinese citizens heard from elsewhere to keep them appeased.

    Only recently has the government stepped back and admitted its faults, at least in part. The national news agency released a statement in 2007 saying “There exist many ecological and environmental problems concerning the Three Gorges Dam”. The shift in government admission from 1992 is striking. (2) Dai Qing commented, “The government knows it has made a mistake. Now they are afraid that the catastrophe that they cannot prevent will spark civil unrest. So they are going public.” However, the government still has yet to show action and admit all faults. (2) A recent drought which western-based experts related to the dam, was blamed on other reasons by the Chinese government.

    Today, in an unfortunate turn of events the dam is being replicated throughout China and around the world. (8) Understanding the root cause of the Three Gorges Dam disaster reveals much about the disaster itself, and helps understand the danger of replicating it elsewhere. For the livelihood of people and the environment throughout China and the world, the people need to understand the full impact of large-scale dams and they need a voice to speak up about them. Until then, an endless cycle of creating misunderstood technology that destroy our planet and our people will continue.

    1.Hughes, Peter. “On the Yangtze, There Is Nothing like a Dam.” London Times 2004: n. pag. Print.

    2.MacArtney, Jane. “Three Gorges Dam Is Disaster in the Making, China Admits.” London Times2007: n. pag. Print.

    3.Pringle, James. “China Triumphs in Damming of Mighty Yangtze.” London Times 1997: n. pag. Print.

    4.Pringle, James. “Dam Threatens Last of Rare Dolphins.” London Times 1997: n. pag. Print.

    5.Rhodes, Tom. “US Bank Coerced to Halt Funds for Chinese Dam.” London Times 1996: n. pag. Print.

    6.Sampson, Catherine. “Li Peng Smiles Serenely through Public Humiliation.” London Times 1992: n. pag. Print.

    7.Minter, Adam. “Drought? Earthquake? Blame the Three-Gorges Dam.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 27 May 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

    8.”Three Gorges Dam.” International Rivers. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

  5. andy

    The article that I chose for my disaster project was pharmaceutical compounding. I learned about pharmaceutical compounding as I researched different key words on the London Times in search of a public health disaster. In one of my searches I came across the term pharmacy compounding and an article about a Fungal Meningitis outbreak that occurred in 2012. The article spoke of “the worst public health disaster since the 1930s” where 14,000 people had received an epidural spinal injection that caused 700 people to become ill from the injection and caused the death of 64 individuals. The outbreak affected 20 states, making this incident a national disaster. This prompted an investigation by the CDC and the FDA to track the source of the outbreak and concluded that the fungus came from a tainted batch of epidural steroid injections with preservative free methylprednisolone acetate solution and that the solution was created by the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Massachusetts. The compounding company recalled all of their products during the investigation while the CDC created a web page where the general public could be up-to-date with information regarding recalls related to the incident.

    Pharmaceutical compounding is considered by the FDA to be a service to the general public and especially for individuals with special needs that need customized medication. Pharmacy compounding works when a licensed pharmacist modifies, or alters a specific medication to suit the needs of a specific patient. The medicine is meant to be modified for their specific use when the patient needs to take a specific dose, or a low strength, when there is an allergy to an inactive ingredient, a dye, or to change the form of the medicine from liquid to solid or vice versa. This type of compounding is referred to as traditional compounding because there is a specific patient in mind when the medication is modified. Pharmacy compounding is referred to as non-traditional when the compounding is done at a mass scale and without a patient in mind. This type of mass production of a pill without a patient in mind is considered to be dangerous because there can be little prediction of how a modified medication can affect various individuals without the proper trials and tests. Non-traditional compounding is not regulated or inspected by the FDA because pharmaceutical companies normally do not manufacture drugs for a large audience. The outbreak of 2012 was an example of how deadly unregulated pharmaceuticals can be deadly to the general public. Now more than ever pharmaceutical companies begin to behave like drug manufacturing companies and this behavior poses a threat to the way people are being medicated.

    The advancements in pharmaceutical compounding and their ability to now mass-produce a specific formula and introduce it to the general public forces the topic of regulation and safety to the table. Currently pharmaceutical companies across the US are regulated by their states and standards are set by the Pharmacy Compounding Accreditation Board but the standards are not mandatory, just suggested. Inspections of pharmaceutical companies currently occur every 3 years and this increases the margin of error in compounding. When looking at the meningitis outbreak of 2012, we can see that this particular outbreak is not the true disaster. The disaster lies in the lack of regulation of pharmacy compounding. Like any development in our society, the advancements that technology and medicine make do not come without a risk. However, under current laws pharmaceutical companies are not responsible for publicizing statistics about any deaths that come as a result of pharmaceutical compounding because it falls under “adverse death”, meaning that it is within the listed possible side effects that the medication can cause. The Meningitis Outbreak caused a can of worms to open up on the subject of pharmaceutical compounding as this type of non-traditional compounding was under investigation and in the eye of the public. Since this disaster began, recalls from pharmacies all over the nation are coming to light.

    After researching this event I conclude that pharmaceutical compounding is an economic disaster. Firstly, because the need for compounding at a mass scale arose when there was a market for profit for these companies meaning that they became an option that the medical community had after pharmaceutical drug companies stopped either distributing certain medications or producing them at all. The need for these medications persisted even without the supply that the drug companies offered. Pharmaceutical compounding was already being used at a traditional level so it was just a matter of producing a specific formula at a mass scale. Second, this field developed quickly because there were no proper regulations besides the ones imposed by each company’s respective states. Therefore there was demand for extensive research to observe the effects of the modifications of each medication. And third, the rising high cost of medical care made these modified pharmaceuticals an affordable option both for the medical community and for the general public.

    The depth of this disaster was not difficult to decipher because it is entwined with the economics of our country. It is not particularly easy to spot either because at first read it simply seems like as I stated before a public health disaster. Like many disasters, the focus of many articles was on the health aspect and the consequences of this outbreak on the well being of the population. It was not until a year passed that the articles that I read began talking about changes in legislation to prevent this from occurring again and to find a way to regulate pharmaceutical companies to avoid these “adverse deaths”. It was interesting to see how different mediums focused on different aspects of this disaster. Some articles like the one from The Wall Street Journal which was written on November, 18 2013 focused on a broader view of the effects of this disaster, focusing more on the consequences of pharmaceutical compounding and the political changes that need to be done. Other articles like the one from NBC News focus more on the controversy of the new bill that had just passed in the Senate; the Drug Quality and Security Act would place pharmaceutical companies who work at a large scale under FDA regulation and would require them to register and report biannually to the Secretary of Health and Human Services on what drugs are compounded each year. The academic journals like the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy focused on analyzing the outbreak infections and how they relate to the compounding pharmacies.

    Compared to the disasters that were introduced throughout the course, this disaster falls under the ongoing disasters section alongside Fukushima and the Bhopal disaster because like those, pharmaceutical compounding disasters are many layered disasters. The lack of regulations and control that compounding companies have caused those people who have taken compounded medication to fall ill. From the 2012 outbreak, this year alone there have been 64 identified cases of meningitis meaning that the effects of this outbreak caused by pharmacy compounding to have unknown long term effects and long term development of the illness. The CDC has established a two-year experiment that aims to analyze how the body is reacting to this infection and how to possibly treat patients in the future.

    I believe that this disaster and this branch of medicine is important and multi-layered because, as more and more recalls arise and more people become aware and involved in this disaster, the course that this disaster takes changes. As I was researching this topic I found that there were recent articles that were posted this month alone about the bill that had just passed through the Senate and political effects of pharmacy compounding. In the last article that I read, correctional centers and many jails in the US that had the death penalty were using pharmaceutical companies to make an execution drug after drug manufacturers stopped selling the execution drug to correctional facilities that had been used for many years. Without access to the existing execution drug the departments of corrections in states that allow the death penalty were at a loss at what to do. The solution to their shortage of the execution drug poses the issue of a violation of the Hippocratic Oath for any physician to prescribe a drug that will cause the death of the patient and for any pharmacist to mix it and a question of ethical behavior in terms of those pharmacists mixing the drugs knowing that they are making a drug for an inmate fated for the death penalty.


    Tavernise, Sabrina. Pollack, Andrew. “F.D.A Details Contamination at Pharmacy” The New York Times Oct. 26, 2012

    Burton, Thomas, M. “Drug Mixers Opened to FDA” The Wall Street Journal. Nov, 18, 2013

    Burton, Thomas, M. “House Passes Bill Regulating Specialty Pharmacies”. The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 28, 2013

    Staes, Catherine. Jacobs, Jason. Mayer, Jeanmarie. “Descriptions of outbreaks of health-care associated infections related to compounding pharmacies 2000-2012”. Clinical Reports: The American Society of Health-System Pharmacist. Vol.70. Aug, 1 2013.

    Martin, Timothy W. “Dangers from Compounding Pharmacies Persist”. The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 9, 2013.

    Brumback, Kate. “Missouri Switches to New Execution Drug”. The Wall Street Journal. Oct. 22, 2013.

  6. rebeccawilson

    It all started the same way; it all ended in panic. The War of the Worlds radio show adapted from H.G Wells book by Orson Welles in 1938, struck at the hearts of the American public. The radio dramatization started with music playing, a weather report, when, all of a sudden, ‘flash’ came over the air. Something had exploded on the planet Mars. News bulletins started immediately. A meteor had crashed near Princeton in New Jersey. Martians crawled out of the meteor, and Earth was under attack. Or at least that’s what thousands of listeners believed as they reacted to the broadcast. People started to pack their bags, with hope to flee the area, others called the police to beg for help.

    The entire scenario was a fiasco of unprecedented proportions in the United States. But, amazingly enough it didn’t end there. Though the power of the media had been so clearly demonstrated in the United States, 11 years later in Quito, Ecuador radio producers were convinced a panic wouldn’t happen there. Quito radio adapted Orson Welles’s production to their own area: they wanted a piece of art to leave listeners on the edge of their seat, but they got more than they bargained for. The people of Quito panicked on a much larger scale than in the US. In the 1930s and 1940s, radio as a source of mass information was something brand new. There were no boundaries and no concept of the media as a power. The outcome of these two instances can only be described as a disastrous mistake made by the media itself. The people of the time knew who to blame then, and they know who to blame now. With media a newly growing social power, The War of the Worlds proved a serious, even deadly, lack of media responsibility.

    Two days after the New York broadcast of the War of the Worlds, Columbia Broadcasting knew that something had gone wrong. According to the London Times, Columbia declared no news broadcasts would be simulated in dramatizations ever again (The Times of London, Wednesday, Nov 02, 1938; pg. 13; Issue 48141). They knew there had been a mistake. The media had taken it too far, and with no other immediate form of information accessible to the masses, Columbia saw, in that moment, the power it had and the responsibility it had abused. While the broadcast did include a disclaimer at the beginning of the show, it did not mean that every listener tuned in at the exact start of the program. And the panic that ensued from the listener’s pure fear was the sole result of irresponsible media broadcasting.

    In Quito, Ecuador things were a little different. Two days after the broadcast the final death toll came in. Fifteen people had died in the riots. All that was left of the radio station was ashes and a plume of black smoke (Martians Land in Quito, Huffington Post, Feb. 13 2009). The people of Quito never doubted who was to blame. In the second they learned of the media’s betrayal, they turned and rioted. In their hurt and anger they burned the station to the ground. The government also knew who was to blame. Two days after the broadcast Dramatic Director, Eduardo Alcaraz, and Art Department Director, Leonardo Paez, were indicted. (The Times of London, Tuesday, Feb 15, 1949; pg. 4; Issue 51306. ) For Quito, Ecuador there was only one entity to blame.

    Years later, the War of the Worlds incident is still seen as a media blunder. The Modern Law Review also made some comments concerning the panic caused by the broadcast. It stated four clear reasons as to why people would have responded to War of the Worlds in such an extreme manner. The first explanation was, “Ordinary men and woman placed extraordinary confidence in radio, in general, and radio news in particular.” This was a confidence that was shattered when the radio replicated a breaking news story and passed fiction off as fact. For Americans this type of confidence was built in years of hearing reports on the depression and the war raging in Europe. For Ecuadorians, the radio kept them informed of the Peruvians imminent invasion into their country. The media, who had been a source of information in their time of need, was now fooling listeners.

    The second reason described was as follows: “Faced with extraordinary events, ordinary Americans placed enormous faith in the experts who were asked to explain them.” Each broadcast had this element in common. The American version used a professor specializing in astronomy, played by the one and only Orson Welles. The Quito adaptation included prominent figures such as the Government Minister and the Mayor, both urging the public to stay calm and flee to the hills. These were professionals that the citizens trusted to provide them with instruction in an emergency, yet to the media it was a game of pretend. The third reason concerned the acting, “By having his characters report events with an incredulity designed to at least equal that of the audience, the dramatist cleverly manipulated listeners’ skepticism so that it served the radio coup de theatre.” In other words, if people had heard about Martians in a calm story they would have been skeptical, however the surprise played by the actors left the listeners to abandon their skeptical thoughts and become seeded with fear. There is a final explanation to take into account. The Modern Law Review states, “Although to modern ears the play sounds ‘stagey,’ by the standards of the time, it was presented in a hyper-naturalistic style.” (The Modern Law Review , Vol. 59, No. 6, Nov. 1996, pp. 813-844) The media used the exact style of the time to fool listeners in to being scared out of their homes, into the streets, even into the mountains for some Ecuadorians.

    It has been established that people of the time blamed the media and so did those of 40-50 years later. The War of the Worlds was an eye opening experience for those involved in the media at the time. It pushed the envelope and exposed its pure power of persuasion. It was clear that the media power could not go unchecked; some kind of self-censorship had to be applied. This crisis of conscience the media experienced in 1938 and again in 1949, has shaped the way news and dramatizations are presented today. Now the media is sensitive to their power. They understand that the way they broadcast events will shape the reactions of the people. If the media is calm in the wake of a disaster, the public will follow suit. The media sets the example of behavior for the world, and a mistake such as the War of the Worlds could never be tolerated again.

  7. Zp

    The worst economic disaster since the Great Depression began when the financial industry applied the simple concept of diversification to loans. The bundling of mortgages into low-risk mortgage-backed securities seemed innocuous at first, but the risk inherent in the mortgages changed. Investors did not anticipate the coming collapse because the underpinnings of the securities were hidden from them, while the banks could not stop producing mortgages or risk losing their position in the loan market to their competition. This obfuscation of the truth for investors and the competitive drive by the banks stemmed from the complex global economic system that dictates the use of global capital, and it is this complexity that ultimately led to the collapse of numerous global financial institutions and the Great Recession.

    Mortgages had always been relatively stable income for the banking industry. While they did have some risk of default, the multitude was repaid, and those that weren’t amounted to nothing more than breakage in a grocery store for the banks. The financial industry looked at the overall stability of mortgages in the years following the turn of the century, and for the first time devised a way to turn individual loans into riskless, investable securities. By grouping thousands of individual loans together, investors could expect returns with impossibly low risk: for every default among the group, fifty more had no issues. These pools became known as Mortgage-backed Securities and were traded with such vigor and enthusiasm that banks struggled to produce mortgages to keep up with demand.

    Banks were forced to reduce standards to keep up with this demand, and soon individuals who could not afford house or car loans were able to get loans that sometimes amounted to over half a million dollars. Clarence Nathan was among those given loans that they could not pay for, and as payments for his $540,000 loan became due, he simply did not have the money to pay (This American Life). He was not alone, and as the years wore on the quality of the mortgages behind the securities began to erode. The days of riskless return were over, but the financial market still valued them “as good as cash” long after No Income No Asset (NINA) loans like Clarence Nathan’s began to be the norm. Without warning the demand for the securities dried up and no one would buy them. Financial institutions were stuck with billions tied up in mortgage-backed securities that became effectively worthless overnight.

    As the disaster began, news sources such as the London Times wrote articles about the scope of the disaster, saying during past financial disasters “many investors lost heavily but the damage was contained and posed little threat to the stability of the financial system” and “central bankers are paid to worry” when Federal Reserve officials warned of the impending collapse (Risks Need 41). Unlike previous disasters, the losses sustained from sub-prime defaults destabilized more than American financial markets. Many of the heaviest investors operated not only within the United States, but also in Europe, China and across the globe. The losses quickly rose: banks and hedge funds such as Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs were unable to supply individuals and corporations with the loans that they needed to keep the economy moving (Costello 39). As sources of capital dried up, so did economic activity. The period of economic weakness grew into The Great Recession.

    The economic forces that caused banks to compete over loan standards and caused the financial market to invest in mortgage-backed securities were the very same which lead to disasters such as the ship-breaking yards in Alang and the contamination of Bhopal by Union Carbide. At the root, each of these disasters was caused by competition in a new global economy. It leads to failed and abandoned chemical plants leaking into the ground water. It necessitates the abuse of cheap labor: had India imposed regulations on shipbreaking, it would have simply moved to an even poorer country that had no regulations (as it now has with Bangladesh). It leads banks to offer NINA loans, lest they lose to their competitors who will. Economic competition has led to the greatest achievements of the human race, while simultaneously leading to the worst disasters.

    Following the disaster estimates of the damage reached over $100 billion, and the Federal Reserve has been criticized for their lack of foresight within the financial industry. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, stressed that “the Federal Reserve was undertaking a ‘top-to-bottom’ review of lending practices” (Bawden 44). Unfortunately, as with many disasters, it is only in hindsight that problems are readily apparent. The Federal Reserve could not have possibly regulated an industry which itself had not realized the disaster was inevitable. The global economy could be undergoing the beginnings of the next Great Collapse at any moment, and neither the financial industry nor the central banks would know until it was too late.

    Free-market economics has given the world booming periods of affluence as well as crippling poverty. When left alone it commonly leads to efficient and beneficial outcomes. However, every so often the free market leads to problems such as pollution and collusion, or even disaster. Government regulation is often used to remedy the negative effects of this hands-off approach, but the worst disasters go unrecognized and unregulated. To fix the systematic problems of our economy would require a worldwide paradigm shift, and so disasters such as those in Bhopal, Alang, and even the United States, grow unchecked and unmitigated. As individual nations expand further into the new global economy the frequency and destruction of these events will only grow.

    Bawden, Tom. Bernanke Says US Sub-Prime Defaults Could Reach $100bn. The Times (London, England), Friday, July 20, 2007; pg. 44; Issue 69069. (551 words)

    Costello, Miles. How the Sub-Prime Squeeze has Spread. The Times (London, England), Monday, August 27, 2007; pg. 39; Issue 69101. (287 words)

    “Risks need to be calculated”. The Times (London, England), Wednesday, April 11, 2007; pg. 41; Issue 68983. (281 words)

    This American Life. 355: The Giant Pool of Money. National Public Radio. 9 May 2008. Web. Transcript.

  8. Jillian Hamada

    The contamination of Hyakken Harbor and Minamata Bay in the 1950-60’s with methyl mercury is one of Japan’s “Big 4 Pollution Disasters” Discovered in 1956, industrial wastewater from Chisso contaminated the bay. Human, pet, and livestock deaths continued to rise until the government imposed sanctions on the plant in 1968. People in Minamata City are still affected and many die each year from residual problems in the area.

    In 1908, Japan was a rapidly industrializing country. Just 40 years before, the country adopted a western style government following a bloody civil war. Japan had only been open to trade for 55 years. The older citizens still remembered a time before last names, electricity, and pants. In pre-Meiji (the reign of Emperor Meiji was 1867-1912) Japan, the daimyo ruled over the peasant class in a feudalistic society that mirrored western Europe a full 400 years earlier. Most of the population was only one generation removed from this style of life in an ever increasingly modern Japan.

    That year, the Japan Nitrogenous Fertilizer Company was born from a merger between the Sogi Electric Company and the Japan Carbide Company. Historically referred to as the portmanteau Nichitsu, it is most often referred to in English simply as Chisso, the Japanese word for Nitrogen. Operating for the war effort, they started producing acetaldehyde using a mercury catalyst in 1932[1].

    Chisso paid small sums of money in 1926 and 1943 agreements to the fishermen that made their living in the bay[3]. A feudal lord customarily provided this support when they damaged their people’s livelihoods. As a zaibatsu, the company enjoyed s status very close to that of an old daimyo and his retainers. The factory may have well been the castle and Minamata City its castle town. In fact, many of the zaibatsu were literally the successors to the old way of life, being built with the money of the old rulers. At its height, Chisso brought in over half of the town’s tax revenue and a quarter of the town’s jobs[1]. The people of Minamata were loyal to Chisso in a the way a vassal was to his lord.

    After the war and subsequent dissolution of the zaibatsu, Chisso reformed and was running just two months after the country’s utter defeat. This however, was the snowball that that started the avalanche. Post-war Japan made the acetaldehyde trade boom. Production jumped from about 200 tons annually to over 40,000 tons annually[4].

    in 1949, octopods and sea bass swam at the surface and could be caught with bare hands. Sometime in 1952, the people of Minamata noticed their cats acting strangely. They went mad and danced in the streets. Some even threw themselves into the sea. Due to the lack of cats, rats had huge increases in population and the fishermen reported that their nets were being eaten away[2]. 1953 saw pigs and chickens dying. Birds fell out of the sky. Fish died and floated on the surface of the bay. By 1954, 100 cats were dead.

    On April 21, 1956, TANAKA Shizuko, age 5, was brought to the Chisso Corporation hospital. She couldn’t walk or talk. Soon her 2 year old sister was brought in as well. Mrs. Tanaka said that some neighbors had similar symptoms to her daughters’ problems[3]. Their case was referred to the director of the hospital, HOSOKAWA Hajime. Dr. Hosokawa had previously treated 2 patients with a similar manifestation the previous year but they had died before a diagnosis could be made[1]. Soon, the towns people were calling this the “strange disease” and assumed it was contagious due to the proximity of the victims houses.

    In 1957, Dr. Hosokawa started testing on cats. In 1959, cat #400 showed signs of the disease in Minamata. This cat’s food was contaminated with waste water from the plant. However, Dr. Hosokawa’s loyalties conflicted him and he withheld the information[1].

    By the end of May 1956, 30 patients that had previously been thought to have had alcoholism, stroke, or encephalitis all were diagnosed with the strange disease. By the new year, 17 had died. The sick people only got worse because what little catch the fishermen brought in was given to the sick in hopes that increased quality nutrition would cure them[1]. This only made them sicker.

    It was reported in newspapers as a “rare, infectious disease.” The Strange Disease Countermeasure Committee ordered patients to be quarantined and houses disinfected. This only further stigmatized the sufferers. Combined with the physical symptoms of ataxia and convulsions, those with the illness were severely discriminated against. Many couldn’t care for themselves anymore and blindness or deafness complicated communication. Children were being born with the disease because the placenta concentrated the mercury in the fetus[1].

    In 1968, Chisso stopped production using mercury. Four months later, the Japanese government recognized the plight of the sufferers. After 2 years of protests, Chisso offered $4,700-11,1000 for each death and $470-1,100 per year for survivors. A 4 year trial began. A dramatic turn of events came from Dr. Hosokawa who testified about cat 400 from his deathbed. The “sympathy money” agreement was found to be invalid and Chisso was ordered to make a payment of $66,000 for each deceased patient, and $59,000-66,000 for each surviving patient. The total compensation of $3.4 million was the largest sum ever awarded by a Japanese court[1][3].

    Eventually, over 2,000 victims were certified. 10,000 received compensation from Chisso. I want to classify this as a cultural disaster. The Japanese people are well known to be a collectivist culture. A famous proverb is Deru kugi wa utareru. (The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.) Many of the people of Minamata were fiercely loyal to Chisso, their provider and protector. They were willing to look past their atrocity because they put food on their tables.

    The patients were heckled and discriminated against because they were thought to be dirty. In a culture that still hosts public bathhouses, their physical condition became taboo. Sufferers and their families were barred to public places. Housing became difficult to find. Landlords didn’t want dirty people on their property. The true disaster here is that the people of Minamata preferred to hammer down the nails that stuck out instead of helping them up.

    [1] http://www.nimd.go.jp/syakai/webversion/houkokushov3-1.html
    [2]This is an article from August 1, 1954 originally published in the Kumamoto Daily Newspaper. The headline is something like “Epileptic Cats Completely Perished: People crying out from sudden surge in rats”
    [3] https://sites.google.com/site/doingdiseasedoingpolitics/home/minamata-disease
    [4] http://www.minamata195651.jp/guide.html

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