Scott Gabriel Knowles comes across as a fairly cheerful guy. You'd never suspect he spends his time thinking about impending disasters and the hazards that lie in wait all around us. Knowles, associate professor of history and politics at Drexel, recently published The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (UPenn Press, $45), which traces the history of our disaster-policy priorities and the people who shape them. It's not a book that will make you sleep better.
City Paper: What worries you the most?
Scott Gabriel Knowles: The general answer is that our federal disaster policies are entirely focused on terrorism and have been since Sept. 11; or, really, since Sept. 14, when Bush went down to Ground Zero and declared a war on terror. That has meant some real difficult choices, and there are winners and losers when it comes to funding for risks and hazards and disaster preparedness. The winners have been issues around terrorism. The losers have been people in what we call the all-hazards realm — anything other than terrorism. ... About 10 to 15 percent of [Homeland Security spending] goes to emergency management. We're basically saying that 10 to 15 percent of our national interest is going to natural and technological hazards — that would be Gulf oil spills, Station nightclub fires. ... We've become so focused on this war-preparedness mind-set that we have laid aside the risks that are in our midst, that are demonstrable, and that affect us every year, in fire season, flood season and hurricane season.
At the Philadelphia level, this has meant tremendous pressure on our local emergency management professionals, and they are working as hard and as fast as they can, but they have tremendous tasks to try just to get federal money. They have to take their attention off of things that we know are going to happen in Philadelphia and focus on things that we're not sure are going to happen, but might. ... What we need to be doing is going out into the communities and getting people ready for ice storms and brownouts and blackouts.
CP: You write that increased knowledge has not reduced risk, and about the division between those who would focus on taking steps to prepare communities and infrastructure ahead of time and those who emphasize disaster response.
SGK: Most of what FEMA does now is cut checks. There was a time in FEMA's history when it was focused more on trying to prevent the disaster from being as bad as it could be in the first place. That's the argument I'm engaged in — this problem of knowledge. We know what can happen. We know what's going to happen. Academics hate this. Engineers especially hate this. I teach at Drexel and talk to the civil and architectural engineers, and they're, like, "Well, we know that the water quality is going to be really bad if we do it this way." Well, of course they're going to do it that way, it's the cheapest way! So academics are flustered because their knowledge doesn't turn into good policy.
The research indicates again and again that the people who will be hardest hit in disasters are those who are just proportionally cut out of our society for a variety of different reasons. They're old, they're people of color, they're low income. ... There are built-in hazards in the land that affect low-income communities. The best example of that in Philadelphia: Look at the demographics of people who live in southwest Philadelphia closest to our greatest hazard, which is the Sunoco refinery. Now that's closing, which I guess is a mixed blessing for Philadelphia, but at any given time we may have to evacuate a half a million people from that area.
CP: Your conclusions are certainly not very encouraging.
SGK: No. We need real policy changes.
CP: You write that disaster mitigation requires poverty reduction, education and land-use restrictions. I read that and think, "Who's going to do any of those three?"
SGK: Can you think of a politician who's actually taken that on in the last 20 years? Bill Clinton elevated FEMA to Cabinet-level status, and he put James Lee Witt in charge. ... He preached the gospel of mitigation, but it was really smartly done, because they talked a lot about infrastructure spending, and they talked about poverty reduction. ... There were initiatives in the late '90s, and they were all summarily canceled in the Bush administration. And it's not because the Bush administration didn't care about natural hazards — it's just that they were ideologically opposed to the way that our government is set up to deal with those. That is to say: Do we want a federal agency to be going into local communities and incentivizing them to understand their hazards? If you ask George Bush, his answer is "No, absolutely not." If you ask Bill Clinton, his answer is "Well, maybe."
CP: Regardless of the political level, the policy doesn't always reflect what's needed, right?
SGK: It may not be in a locality's interest to undertake a huge tax to build a levee system, for example, but at the same time we trust them to make decisions that are best for them. We want to allow local government and local people to make their decisions, but sometimes those decisions impact the people downriver, and that's a problem.
CP: Could you explain what you posit in the book: That disasters are not external to the environment and political culture, but that disasters mirror the values of a society.
SGK: [There are] the hazards that we countenance in our physical environment — the built environment — and the effects that we allow. If you think that it's OK to have a 200-story building with no fire escapes, that would be a certain kind of value. That means that it's a society that celebrates building the tallest building. That's a simple example, but the World Trade Center was not that different. ... I think that we can read into the built environment a lot about our values in the United States postwar, about land use and about this notion of small government.
CP: And people want to build houses on coastlines. Locally, that can be seen with the condos that were built a few years ago on Manayunk's Venice Island, which is in a floodplain. In the past two years, they have flooded and have had to be evacuated.
SGK: Philly's a funny environment because within the city — and [in cities like] New York and Boston — these are urban environments that work. They're ecologically stable, because they've been around a long time. When you push out into these areas outside the city, you start to develop and lay a lot of asphalt and mess with the drainage system, or build high rises in the middle of the Schuylkill River, you're starting to do things that people never thought of doing before. That presents some really interesting problems. The flooding from [2011's Hurricane] Irene — if you look at the majority of losses from the flooding, they're all in suburban areas. In general, Philly floods, but it floods in a way that people know about. But when you get out into Bucks County and Montgomery County and places where people weren't living 50 years ago, it's a very different picture. Since World War II, metropolitan growth is so rapid in areas that we have not taken good ecological assessments of. There are reasons for that: We don't restrict land use.
CP: What did the 1950s civil defense efforts in Philadelphia reveal?
SGK: The idea for Philadelphia was that you would have a block warden for every single street, and the block warden's job would be to make sure that people were prepared for nuclear attacks. That's sort of a Philly thing to do, right? But it totally, totally failed. Almost zero percent participation. Because Philadelphians didn't see themselves as happy Cold Warriors. They were members of their union or their church or whatever. It's a weird sell for the government to say, "You could be incinerated at any moment! And also here are three small steps you can take to prepare yourself for that!" It just doesn't make sense, and people generally did nothing about it. There was a lot of talk about civil defense, a lot of money spent, but very little action among citizens. Philadelphia is a great example.
CP: You begin the book with a scene from the Sept. 11 hearings.
SGK: I felt then and still think the wrong lessons were learned from that day. Those were fires that brought down high rises. They were caused by an act of terrorism, but that does not negate the fact that those buildings were experimental and unsafe. ... The conversations after Sept. 11 were so fraught around "Why do they hate us?" and all these other things, but there was so little discussion about the hazards in our midst. That inspired me to write the book.
Scott Gabriel Knowles will talk about The Disaster Experts on Wed., Feb. 22, 5:30 p.m., at the Penn Bookstore, 3601 Walnut St., penniur.upenn.edu.