The best books on natural disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean

Charles F. Walker Author Of Shaky Colonialism: The 1746 Earthquake-Tsunami in Lima, Peru, and Its Long Aftermath
By Charles F. Walker

Who am I?

Writing my history of the 1746 earthquake and tsunami that walloped much of Peru taught me that disasters serve as great entryways into society. They not only provide a snapshot (today's selfie) of where people were and what they were doing at a given moment (think Pompei) but also bring to light and even accentuate social and political tensions. I have lived my adult life between Peru and California and have experienced plenty of earthquakes. I continue to teach on "natural" disasters and have begun a project on the 1600 Huaynaputina volcano that affected the global climate. 

I wrote...

Shaky Colonialism: The 1746 Earthquake-Tsunami in Lima, Peru, and Its Long Aftermath

By Charles F. Walker,

Book cover of Shaky Colonialism: The 1746 Earthquake-Tsunami in Lima, Peru, and Its Long Aftermath

What is my book about?

On October 28, 1746, a massive earthquake ravaged Lima, a bustling city of 50,000, capital of the Peruvian Viceroyalty, and the heart of Spain’s territories in South America. Half an hour later, a tsunami destroyed the nearby port of Callao. The earthquake-tsunami demolished churches and major buildings, damaged food and water supplies, and suspended social codes, throwing people of different social classes together and prompting widespread chaos. I examine reactions to the catastrophe, the Viceroy’s plans to rebuild the city, and the opposition he encountered from the Church, the Spanish Crown, and Lima’s multiracial population.

The Viceroy devised a classic Enlightenment plan to rebuild --only to receive the full-scale opposition of virtually all of the city's population as well as nearby Indigenous communities.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake

Why did I love this book?

This book showcases the extraordinary writing of the novelist and journalist Elena Poniatowska. She weaves together the voices of multiple journalists, her own reflections, and above all the testimonies of dozens of survivors of the two earthquakes that battered Mexico City and surrounding areas on September 19 and 20, 1985. It is both a moving report of people's suffering as well as a stirring portrait of how common people stepped in and created search and rescue teams and offered relief when government efforts failed. Poniatowska masterfully captures what many historians consider a key before and after moment in modern Mexican history.

By Elena Poniatowska,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nothing, Nobody as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In September 19, 1985, a powerful earthquake hit Mexico City in the early morning hours. As the city collapses, the government fails to respond. Long a voice of social conscience, prominent Mexican journalist, Elena Poniatowska chronicles the disintegration of the city's physical and social structure, the widespread grassroots organizing against government corruption and incompetence, and the reliency of the human spirit. As a transformative moment in the life of Mexican society, the earthquake is as much a component of the country's current crisis as the 1982 debt crisis, the problematic economic of the last ten years, and the recent elections.…

Book cover of Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina

Why did I love this book?

This rollicking history of hurricanes takes us from the sixteenth century (and before actually) to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. Schwartz is a dogged researcher who has mastered the science of hurricanes and explains them well. He also has a great eye for social history and makes his points by telling anecdotes and stories. He tips his hat to the French master of longue durée history, Fernand Braudel, and Sea of Storms highlights long-term continuities in hurricanes and their destructive paths.

He shows that although the region known as the Caribbean stretches across North, Central, and South America, varying greatly in terms of languages, history, environment, and more, the annual threat of hurricanes brings it together and provides an excellent advantage point for its study.

By Stuart B. Schwartz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The diverse cultures of the Caribbean have been shaped as much by hurricanes as they have by diplomacy, commerce, or the legacy of colonial rule. In this panoramic work of social history, Stuart Schwartz examines how Caribbean societies have responded to the dangers of hurricanes, and how these destructive storms have influenced the region's history, from the rise of plantations, to slavery and its abolition, to migrations, racial conflict, and war. Taking readers from the voyages of Columbus to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Schwartz looks at the ethical, political, and economic challenges that hurricanes posed to the Caribbean's indigenous…

Book cover of In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers in the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society

Why did I love this book?

Concerns about global warming have focused much attention on glaciers and their relentless retreat. Carey shows that too much of the research has focused on the science of glaciology and the ice-capped mountain peaks themselves, overlooking the people who live near them. He studies the Peruvian Andes, the Cordillera Blanca, the site of devastating avalanches, and much contemporary research. Carey illuminates how local Indigenous people have built their lives around and protected themselves from glaciers and how they are confronting climate change. He also reviews their interactions with scientists and technicians.

In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers is a rare combination of excellent science and captivating narrative (disclaimer--Mark Carey was my PhD student).

By Mark Carey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers in the Shadow of Melting Glaciers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Climate change is producing profound changes globally. Yet we still know little about how it affects real people in real places on a daily basis because most of our knowledge comes from scientific studies that try to estimate impacts and project future climate scenarios. This book is different, illustrating in vivid detail how people in the Andes have grappled with the effects of climate change and ensuing natural disasters for more than half a century. In Peru's
Cordillera Blanca mountain range, global climate change has generated the world's most deadly glacial lake outburst floods and glacier avalanches, killing 25,000 people…

Book cover of Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

Why did I love this book?

This book is best known for its controversial argument that not only did British imperial policies worsen the droughts-famines-epidemics that devastated India from 1876 to 1878 but that Victorian policy-makers could have intervened to save millions of lives but refrained. Yet Davis also provides a wrenching account of Brazilian droughts in 1876-79 and 1896-1900 that left millions dead, particularly in the Sertão, the northeastern hinterland. He shows the connections between climate (El Niño), economic transformations, and mass displacements, and starvation in Brazil, and how European empires, the United States, and Japan took advantage of these crises. 

Some readers will appreciate his polemical style, others not; Davis, however, is a fantastic writer and presents a nuanced and well-researched depiction of famine in Brazil. 

By Mike Davis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Examining a series of El Nino-induced droughts and the famines that they spawned around the globe in the last third of the 19th century, Mike Davis discloses the intimate, baleful relationship between imperial arrogance and natural incident that combined to produce some of the worst tragedies in human history. Late Victorian Holocausts focuses on three zones of drought and subsequent famine: India, Northern China; and Northeastern Brazil. All were affected by the same global climatic factors that caused massive crop failures, and all experienced brutal famines that decimated local populations. But the effects of drought were magnified in each case…

The Day the World Ended

By Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts,

Book cover of The Day the World Ended

Why did I love this book?

In early May 1902, the Mount Pelée volcano at the northern tip of Martinique rumbled and smoked. On May 8 it released its fury, killing approximately 30,000 people. It remains an active volcano. The authors tell this story with elan, using original sources to bring in the experience of victims and survivors. But the book is much more than a narrative history, as it uncovers how authorities in this French overseas department in the Caribbean neglected the threat posed by the volcano and obfuscated and stalled in the horrid aftermath.

The Day the World Ended joins these other books in questioning the interpretation of natural disasters, underlining human culpability.

By Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Day the World Ended as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A detailed account of the erruption of Mount Pelee in the West Indies in 1902, and the events leading up to the disaster

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