11/01/2012 05:49 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What to Look for in Sandy's Aftermath

I am teaching a course at Yale this semester on the history of disasters, and Hurricane Sandy has made landfall on the syllabus right between a class on terrorism as disaster, and a class on the 1927 Mississippi River Flood. As Sandy unfolds, I have been reminded of the pioneering sociologist of disaster Charles Fritz, who sounded a little disappointed in 1960 when he wrote, "The social scientist, unlike the engineer, cannot produce destructive experiments at will." While I wouldn't wish a big storm on anybody (neither would Fritz, surely), for me and my students, watching the storm and its aftermath has offered a special opportunity to test our disaster knowledge.

Based on our understanding of past hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, and other calamitous events in American history, we are developing a list of what we'll be watching for in Sandy's aftermath. I'll include my first thoughts here, and invite readers to check out for updates from me and my students.

Will people come together or fall apart?

In the popular imagination, disasters give rise to disorder -- looting, pillaging, society unraveled. But in In A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit argues that crisis situations often give rise to something like utopian cooperation. What will happen on the Jersey Shore?

Who will be responsible for disaster relief?

Hurricane Sandy has dredged up comments Mitt Romney made in 2011 about the Federal Emergency Management Agency: "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better." Romney's been dodging the question now, but a debate is stirring over who is responsible for help.

What sort of disaster relief are citizens entitled to?

Disaster relief can take many forms -- grants, loans, temporary housing, emergency cash, flood insurance -- and each offers different kinds of solutions to different kinds of problems.

Who will blame the victims, and for what?

When hurricanes come to Louisiana, observers sometimes criticize citizens there for choosing to live in harm's way. Will similar accusations be levied at New Yorkers? And once disaster aid comes, how will victims be treated? Iowa Representative Steve King has already raised the specter of people using relief checks to buy Gucci bags.

Is Sandy an act of god, or the work of man?

The historian Ted Steinberg has written about how describing events as "acts of god" is often a way of obscuring the human decisions that have put people in danger in the first place. (After a West Virginia dam broke in 1972, killing over 100 people, a representative of the coal company that built the dam said it was "incapable of holding the water that god poured into it.")