The best books about American disasters

Who am I?

I am a historian of early America and I teach at George Mason University. What got me interested in disaster history was Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the Jersey Shore (and New York City) in 2012. Sandy destroyed places I cared about—my childhood rollercoaster plunged into the ocean! As I watched the news obsessively, I saw a pattern that was familiar to me from Katrina and from other recent disasters. Quantitative information—how many lives and dollars lost—and insights from hurricane science came first, followed by human-interest stories, uplifting news of relief and resilience, and (eventually) post-disaster investigations and recriminations. I wanted to understand the roots of this pattern—this "culture of calamity." When did it originate? Where did it come from?

I wrote...

Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood

By Cynthia Kierner,

Book cover of Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood

What is my book about?

Today, when disasters strike, Americans count their losses, search for causes, commiserate with victims, and organize relief efforts. Inventing Disaster explains the origins and development of this predictable, even ritualized, response to calamity, finding its roots in the revolutions in science, information, and emotion that were part of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and America.

Beginning with the famine- and disease-ridden Jamestown colony in 1607 and ending with the deadly Johnstown flood of 1889—and highlighting various fires, epidemics, earthquakes, and steamboat explosions along the way—the book recounts the stories horrific episodes and the resulting efforts to explain, prevent, and relieve these disaster-related tragedies. Although how we interpret and respond to such cataclysmic events has changed in some ways, Inventing Disaster reconstructs the intellectual and cultural history of the twenty-first-century approach to our own seemingly never-ending parade hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America

Why did I love this book?

Back when people understood hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters as literally being "acts of God," they sensibly concluded that human intervention could not prevent them. Yet that language—and its wide-ranging implications for public policy—has persisted, even as scientists have come to understand the physical causes of disasters and, increasingly, to believe that no disaster is wholly "natural." Ted Steinberg shows how government and corporate leaders' perpetuation of the idea of disasters as "natural" or even divinely ordained helps them to evade responsibility and avoid meaningful policy changes that might prevent future catastrophes. (Ripped from the headlines, climate change denial is a prime example!) Gripping case studies of famous disasters like the Chicago Fire and the San Francisco earthquake make this serious book a compelling read.

By Ted Steinberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Acts of God as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain began to pour into New Orleans, people began asking the big question-could any of this have been avoided? How much of the damage from Hurricane Katrina was bad luck, and how much was poor city planning? Steinberg's Acts of God is a provocative history of natural disasters in the United States. This revised edition features a new chapter analyzing the failed response to Hurricane
Katrina, a disaster Steinberg warned could happen when the book first was published. Focusing on America's worst natural disasters, Steinberg argues that it is wrong to…

Book cover of The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives

Why did I love this book?

The subtitle pretty much says it all: poorly paid workers locked inside an appallingly under-regulated chicken processing plant pay with their lives when the building caught fire so that we can all have cheap chicken nuggets. The fact that this horrific fire in Hamlet, North Carolina, happened fairly recently—in 1991—makes Bryant Simon's well-told story all the more troubling and tragic.

By Bryant Simon,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Hamlet Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For decades, the small, quiet town of Hamlet, North Carolina, thrived thanks to the railroad. But by the 1970s, it had become a postindustrial backwater, a magnet for businesses in search of cheap labor and almost no oversight. Imperial Food Products was one of those businesses. The company set up shop in Hamlet in the 1980s. Workers who complained about low pay and hazardous working conditions at the plant were silenced or fired. But jobs were scarce in town, so workers kept coming back, and the company continued to operate with impunity. Then, on the morning of September 3, 1991,…

Book cover of Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

Why did I love this book?

Christopher Morris's chronological scope is break-taking, and not all five hundred years of his story deal directly with the hurricanes and other disasters that have routinely afflicted the Lower Mississippi River region. The Big Muddy describes the interplay between humans and the environment, and especially human efforts to engineer the boundaries between wetlands and dry agricultural acreage (first for rice, and later for cotton). After more than a century of hubris-laden and profit-driven tinkering, the Katrina disaster was more or less inevitable—and very much in keeping with the region's tradition of inequitably sharing both the short-term benefits and long-term costs of environmental disruption.

By Christopher Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Big Muddy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Big Muddy, the first long-term environmental history of the Mississippi, Christopher Morris offers a brilliant tour across five centuries as he illuminates the interaction between people and the landscape, from early hunter-gatherer bands to present-day industrial and post-industrial society.

Morris shows that when Hernando de Soto arrived at the lower Mississippi Valley, he found an incredibly vast wetland, forty thousand square miles of some of the richest, wettest land in North America, deposited there by the big muddy river that ran through it. But since then much has changed, for the river and for the surrounding valley. Indeed,…

Book cover of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

Why did I love this book?

I am a historian of early America, including the American Revolution, though I'm not a huge reader (or writer) of conventional military history. Published in 2001, Elizabeth Fenn's book was in many ways ahead of its time in emphasizing how military outcomes—and strategies—were often contingent on other seemingly unrelated factors. In this case, she argues that smallpox was a decisive force in the American War for Independence. The continental scope of her study, moreover, provides a link between that war and the ultimately successful military offensives that the independent United States inflicted on disease-weakened Native American peoples in the post-revolutionary era.

By Elizabeth A. Fenn,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Pox Americana as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The astonishing, hitherto unknown truths about a disease that transformed the United States at its birth

A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across the Americas when the American Revolution began, and yet we know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lives of everyone in North America.

By 1776, when military action and political ferment increased the movement of people and microbes, the epidemic worsened. Fenn's remarkable research shows us how smallpox devastated the American troops at Québec and…


By Dave Eggers,

Book cover of Zeitoun

Why did I love this book?

Zeitoun reads like a novel, but it's not. Dave Eggers tells the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his family in New Orleans after Katrina. Known simply as "Zeitoun," Abdulrahman is a Syrian-born American citizen; his wife, Kathy, is a white Louisianan who converted to Islam before meeting her future husband. Zeitoun stayed in New Orleans after the storm, rescuing neighbors and bringing them supplies, until the authorities mistakenly arrested him as a potential terrorist. In this book, the Zeitouns and other ordinary New Orleans residents are the heroes; the villains are the police and especially the feds (FEMA and the National Guard). Several years after the publication of Eggers's book, Zeitoun was charged with assaulting his wife and the couple eventually divorced. Did the irreparable material and psychological costs of Katrina wreck the Zeitoun family? Knowing what happened next should lead us to ponder the long-term human effects of hurricanes and other disasters.

By Dave Eggers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Zeitoun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Masterly. Brilliantly crafted, powerfully written and deftly reported' Guardian

The urgent and unforgettable true story of post-Katrina New Orleans . . .

In August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina blew in, the city of New Orleans has been abandoned by most citizens. But resident Abdulrahman Zeitoun, though his wife and family had gone, refused to leave. For days he traversed an apocalyptic landscape of flooded streets by canoe. But eventually he came to the attention of those 'guarding' this drowned city. Only then did Zeitoun's nightmare really begin.


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Interested in smallpox, North Carolina, and Louisiana?

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