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

The Books I Picked & Why

Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake

By Elena Poniatowska

Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake

Why 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.


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

By Stuart B. Schwartz

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

Why 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.


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

By Mark Carey

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

Why 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).


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

By Mike Davis

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

Why 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. 


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The Day the World Ended

By Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts

The Day the World Ended

Why 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.


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