Crisis of Decision: A Roundtable Discussion on Disasters and American Power

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

Type: Roundtable Discussion

Tags: Environment; International Relations; Social Welfare and Public Health


Disasters constitute pivotal events in American history, moments when power is contested by individuals, communities, and the state. In the aftermath of catastrophes, individuals negotiate for effective relief and recovery assistance, communities galvanize or come undone, and government officials choose how—or whether—to respond. Economic, social, and political motives all underpin these varied responses to catastrophe, further shaping the power dynamics at play. Focusing on the United States in both foreign and domestic contexts, the participants on this roundtable will discuss the intersection of disasters and American power throughout the long twentieth century.

Session Participants

Chair and Panelist: Jacob Remes, New York University
Jacob Remes is an associate professor of history at New York University’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study. He is a historian of modern North America with a focus on urban disasters, working-class organizations, and migration. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (University of Illinois Press, 2016) examines the overlapping responses of individuals, families, civil society, and the state to the Salem, Massachusetts, Fire of 1914 and the Halifax, Nova Scotia, Explosion of 1917. His popular writing on subjects relating to his research has appeared in the Nation, Atlantic, Salon, and elsewhere. Besides NYU, Remes has taught at Harvard, Columbia, Duke, and Meiji Universities, and was an assistant professor at SUNY Empire State College.

Panelist: Alvita Akiboh, University of Michigan
Alvita Akiboh is an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan and postdoctoral scholar in the Michigan Society of Fellows. She is a historian of the U.S. colonial empire and is currently at work on two book projects. Her first book, Imperial Material: Objects and Identity in the U.S. Colonial Empire, uses everyday objects with national symbols like flags, money, and stamps to examine formations of national identity in the overseas territories of the United States. Her newest research focuses on the history of natural disasters in U.S. overseas colonies.

Panelist: Andrew Deutsch Horowitz, Tulane University
Andy Horowitz is an Assistant Professor of History at Tulane University, where he affiliated with the programs in Environmental Studies and City, Culture, and Community. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 2014.

Andy specializes in modern American political, cultural, and environmental history. His research focuses on disasters and the questions they give rise to about race, class, community, trauma, inequality, the welfare state, extractive industry, metropolitan development, and environmental change. Over the past decade and a half, his work on two places in particular - New Orleans, "the Land of Dreams," and New Haven, "the Model City" - has explored how people respond when faced, by choice or by circumstance, with the loss of their homes and the need to re-imagine their communities.

Andy's first book, Katrina: A History, ​1915-2015, will be published by Harvard University Press in June 2020. He currently is co-editing Critical Disaster Studies: New Perspectives on Disaster, Vulnerability, Resilience, and Risk, an interdisciplinary collection of new work, as well as serving as guest editor for a 2021 special issue of Southern Cultures, focused on the environment. He has published scholarly articles in the Journal of Southern History, Southern Cultures, and Historical Reflections, as well as essays in the The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Panelist: Julia F. Irwin, University of South Florida
Julia Irwin is an Associate Professor of History at the University of South Florida. Her research focuses on the place of humanitarianism in 20th century U.S. foreign relations and international history. Her first book, Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening (Oxford University Press, 2013) is a history of U.S. international civilian relief in the early twentieth century, and particularly during the First World War era. She is now completing a second book-length project, Catastrophic Diplomacy: A History of U.S. Responses to Global Natural Disaster. This book traces how the U.S. government, branches of the U.S. military, American charities and relief organizations, and the U.S. public responded to sudden catastrophes in other countries during the 20th century, with a focus on disasters caused by tropical storms, earthquakes, floods, and other natural hazards. Her work has also appeared in such journals as The Journal of American History, Diplomatic History, The Bulletin of the History of Medicine, and The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In 2017, she was appointed to the OAH Distinguished Lectureship Program.

Panelist: Ian Seavey, Texas A&M University
Ian Seavey is a PhD student at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. His research interests are centered on the intersection of U.S. foreign relations and natural disasters in the Circum-Caribbean. He has an article accepted for publication in the Florida Historical Quarterly that discusses the historiography of hurricanes as a subfield of environmental history. He is currently working on an article that is part of his dissertation comparing hurricanes in Puerto Rico in 1899 and Galveston, Texas in 1900 and how Progressive Era ideas about race, class, and poverty informed relief efforts in the aftermath and rebuilding. His dissertation will examine the complex relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico by comparing the relief efforts following natural disasters on the island and in the domestic United States.