“In the movies, disasters have happy endings,” writes Samantha Montano in her new – and first – book, “Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis” (Park Row Books, 384 pp., ★★★½ out of four). What Montano makes clear is that the end of a disaster’s acute phase, after the floods have abated, a building collapse has been contained, a wildfire quelled or a pandemic tamed, is just another beginning, and usually far from happy.
Whose lives need rebuilding? Who will pay? How can we manage the future?
Montano wisely emphasizes that the disasters most of us note in the news, from a safe distance, only to forget about them as the news cycle moves on, are often long-term catastrophes for the people and places directly affected. A professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy with advanced degrees in emergency management, Montano is an expert on the intersectionality of disasters, climate change and media. But the power of this debut book lies not so much in her mastery of statistics or research as in her eloquent, passionately personal narrative.
Born in the small town of Taylorville, Illinois, during a health crisis bred by toxic chemicals from an old coal plant, Montano was 11 years old on 9/11, falling as if with the twin towers into the grip of the 24/7 news coverage. “I sat in front of the TV for weeks, watching search and rescue turn into recovery, and eventually into war,” she writes. “Despite the loss of life, I saw a system at work to fix the disaster. I saw droves of help flooding the streets of New York … Only four years later, Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast.”
Indeed, Hurricane Katrina’s near-total destruction of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is at the core of her book’s perspective. Recruited for a high school service trip to help rebuild houses in New Orleans over spring break, Montano was confronted with the physical depth – and political breadth – of the catastrophe, gleaning insights most 16-year-olds wouldn’t glean from TV.
Months had passed since Katrina hit, and yet: “For miles in every direction, houses lay in pieces, stores sat empty, cars abandoned. There was no mail service, no trash or recycling service, no public transportation, only a shadow of school system, a fledgling healthcare system, essentially no mental healthcare, and a local government that was more than overwhelmed. People were dead, missing, injured, and displaced. The economy had collapsed.”
Montano immersed herself in New Orleans’ struggle, moving there as a college student. She argues that Katrina has lingered in our public consciousness and cultural fabric, citing the HBO series Treme, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video and Katrina’s role in the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
More the point, Katrina is a lesson in the failure of systems – from the inability to cope of local government to the belated response of FEMA and the Bush administration. By 2010, of course, the BP Oil Disaster unleashed by the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig only compounded the Gulf Coast’s environmental miseries. Katrina, at least, had helped ready the region for it. With no scarcity of disasters since then, Montano’s book is at once a comparative compendium of crises and a prescriptive take on how to face a future threatened by the overarching complexities of climate change and the certainty of uncertainty, whether pandemic-driven or endemic to sociopolitical structures.
While the measured, richly descriptive writing that propels much of the book lapses into progressive rhetoric by the end, Montano asks all the right questions. Will we live in a world of feeble reaction or planned response, a you’re-on-your-own landscape of “check lists and go-bags,” or what Montano calls “disaster justice,” marked by organized efforts and political will? Our lives depend on the answers.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Disasterology' asks: Are we prepared for the next disaster?