Fault at the Faultline: The Lisbon Earthquake, Rousseau and the Social Understanding of Disaster
On the morning of 1 November 1755, a sequence of earthquakes struck Lisbon, Portugal, claiming the lives of approximately 70,000 people. Befalling the city during the European Enlightenment, the catastrophe stimulated a rich dialogue about its underlying cause between two preeminent philosophers of the day: Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Voltaire, the earthquakes were an unavoidable tragedy: the result of human misfortune, the pervasiveness of evil in the world and ‘miseries the worst!’. Yet for Rousseau, the matter was not so simple.
Calling for greater reflexivity, Rousseau proposed that the practices of the Lisbon people had contributed to the damage; for this reason, the disaster was not solely attributable to a malignant, external force. He hypothesised that, had the city been constructed less densely or had its residents been swifter to evacuate, the effects of the quakes might not have been so severe. Rousseau also put it to Voltaire that the tremors would have caused far less ruin if they had impacted only the wilderness, suggesting that the presence and susceptibility of a human settlement is a precondition to the occurrence of a disaster.
After the passage of several centuries, Rousseau’s approach finally came to represent the dominant and contemporary understanding of disaster in the social sciences from the 1970s. Today, we no longer see disasters as purely natural phenomena, nor as external threats that disrupt our stable social order. Instead, we conceptualise disaster as the product of a natural hazard impacting a vulnerable community. Since social practices are responsible for generating this vulnerability, it stands to reason that the law can regulate and modify them with a view to reducing disaster risk and, by extension, disaster losses. This social scientific approach to disasters has principally focused on the vulnerability of humans; however, since human practices can also make animals vulnerable, its relevance to nonhuman populations is increasingly being recognised.
Hurricane Katrina: A Socially-Caused Disaster
The notion that disasters are at least partially generated by vulnerable social conditions was borne out in the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans in 2005. On the one hand, the tragedy was a result of human engineering failure: the levees preventing the low-lying city from flooding were found to have been constructed to an unsatisfactory standard. However, inadequate disaster planning and a want of community preparedness for the inundation brought by the storm also contributed to the widespread destruction.
On the day before the Hurricane made landfall, the Mayor of New Orleans issued a mandatory evacuation order to residents. While some successfully departed the city in their own vehicles, fleeing the impending storm was much more complex for less resourced residents who were reliant on public transport. For residents who both lacked private car ownership and lived with companion animals, the challenges were compound: emergency transporters refused to admit individuals accompanied by their animals. This compelled such residents to elect between jeopardising their own safety to remain with their dependent animal companions and evacuating to safety.
On some occasions, animals were forcibly removed from their owners and, in the most extreme cases, this reportedly occurred under threat of arrest or at gunpoint. One particularly poignant story, which became ‘iconographic’ of the failure to consider the human-animal bond during the evacuation of New Orleans, was that of Snowball: the small, white dog who was extracted from the arms of his young owner by National Guardsmen as he boarded a bus leaving the city. The boy cried until he vomited. Likewise, a visually-impaired woman recalled being air-lifted by rescuers from her flooding home, compelled to leave her assistance dog behind.
Hurricane Katrina claimed the lives of 1833 humans and hundreds of thousands of companion animals are estimated to have perished in the storm. In a survey conducted in the aftermath of Katrina, 49% of respondents indicated that they would not evacuate in the event of a disaster if they were unable to bring their companion animals with them. From this, it was deduced that the failure to include animals in disaster planning and response policies endangered human lives as well.
Putting the Law to Task: Disaster Planning for Animals
Within weeks of Hurricane Katrina, a bill was introduced to the US Congress to ensure that owners of companion and assistance animals would receive greater support in future disasters. Having described the bill as ‘common sense’ legislation, its sponsor affirmed that ‘[w]ithout a corrected protocol, pet owners are unnecessarily forced to choose between their own safety and the safety of their pets…’ In October 2006, the Pets Evacuations and Transport Standards Act, Pub. L. No. 109-308, 120 Stat 1725 (2006) was passed, requiring State and local emergency management plans to account for the needs of individuals with household pets and assistance animals.
Similar developments have followed in other jurisdictions. For example, in the wake of the catastrophic 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria, Australia — which killed 173 people and an estimated one million animals — the State introduced the Victorian Emergency Animal Welfare Plan. Integrated with broader emergency management frameworks, the Plan is designed to ‘ensure that animals are planned for and their welfare is appropriately addressed in any emergency’.
Similarly, the 2010-2011 Canterbury Earthquakes, which caused the deaths of 185 people and an unknown but significant number of animals also catalysed meaningful reform. In response to recommendations by an advisory committee, New Zealand modified its emergency plan to embed animal welfare measures within its general human welfare services. Significantly, the plan contemplates the mass evacuation of companion and even agricultural animals (though elsewhere the latter is described as ‘aspirational’).
While the development of bespoke planning instruments to improve disaster preparedness and response in respect of animals is a promising step, it is not, by itself, sufficient. Jurisdictions must also take proactive steps to reduce animals’ disaster risk, which requires action to prevent and mitigate the effects of hazards on them. For example, Australia’s recent 2019-2020 Black Summer Bushfires, which are estimated to have killed or displaced 3 billion animals, made starkly apparent the pressing need to curtail land-clearing and development, and instead conserve habitat, refuges and wildlife corridors. Similarly, the disaster underscored the profound exposure of domesticated – particularly agricultural – animals to dangerous hazards; in this sense, it revealed the need for strategic and careful farm design in order to preemptively protect herds and flocks from fires in the future.
Several jurisdictions across the world are already using legal mechanisms to address those social factors that make animals vulnerable to disasters. In particular, steps are being taken to improve the preparedness of animal owners, first responders, governments and NGOs, as well as welfare response capabilities during disasters. While these are welcome developments, more must be done to prevent and mitigate the risks disasters pose to animals in the first place. Although this is a challenge, it is one to which we must rise: we live in a world that will only become more volatile and perilous as the climate changes.