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Making sense of disaster

Dr John Wills, an authority on environmental history at the University, suggests this week’s tornado in Oklahoma, the latest in a series of US environmental disasters, is part of a much wider story.

He said: 'The Oklahoma tornado lasted just 40 minutes, but the story of environmental disaster in America is much longer and more complicated. Since the sudden devastation of Moore, a southern suburb of Oklahoma City, on Monday afternoon, the US media has framed the disaster as an unexpected hit on American soil. A sense of denial and shock is conveyed, victims relating how, despite their prior experiences of tornadoes in the region, they "never expect it to happen" on the scale of 200 mph winds downtown.

‘The "Americanness" of the event is told through images of suburbia leveled and heroic survivors arising, both human and animal. Powerful images of ruination are shaped around familiar iconography: the dirtied Stars and Stripes aloft an overturned and wrecked automobile, emblematic of the American dream temporarily in tatters. Reports come in of survivors being greeted with an "apocalyptic vision", "absolute destruction", with "cars crumpled up like little toys": of a new unfamiliar post-tornado landscape. At the same time, links are made with past terrorist attacks - the Alfred P Murrah federal building destroyed not far from the scene of devastation - and prior environmental disasters, both tornadoes and hurricanes. The Oklahoma Tornado is part of a trend, part of a greater story.

‘Sifting through the wreckage, the search for answers, and ultimately blame increases. As with other environmental disasters, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency has already been criticized, this time over its failure to aid Moore’s plan for more shelters earlier in the year. The other obvious target: nature herself. "This one was a monster. It was huge, dark and scary. It was just this big, dark menacing act of nature coming toward you," was one resident’s description of the tornado. Another told of the 190-200 mph winds as "just like the movie Twister". Of course, nature carries no prejudice, with the result, bowling alleys, hospitals and schools lost in an instant.

'Tornadoes are part of the Great Plains system, with half a dozen tornadoes of triple-figure death counts across the 20th century, but the only sense is of now, of the moment. As natural phenomenon, tornados are unpredictable, powerful, and hard to understand, and out of our control. We live with an illusion if we think otherwise, and sometimes cling to denial.'

Dr John Wills is Senior Lecturer in American History within the University's School of History. His latest book, US Environmental History: Inviting Doomsday. (Edinburgh University Press) explores how US environmental disasters are constructed in popular culture, and how the USA continues to head towards disaster.


Story published at 2:30pm 22 May 2013

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Last Updated: 12/06/2013