Thursday, December 8, 2011


In literature and drama, a catastrophe marks the death or destruction of the story's protagonist.  This is key in understanding the symbolism of 'catastrophe'  in political and popular rhetoric.  Evoking the term frames a person or entity that is champion of a cause, a struggle to pursue a moral good, and an adversary impinging upon the ability the moral good to be satisfied.  Those who are placed in these roles change depending on who is using the term 'catastrophe' and to what end.       

There is claimed to be a unique concern in natural disasters because a single event can damage multiple properties causing a substantially large aggregate loss.  Such losses, some believe“have had a more devastating impact on insurers since 1990 than in the entire history of insurance.”  Events causing losses of $25 million or more are termed ‘catastrophic’ and an especially large aggregate loss may be deemed ‘mega-catastrophic.’ While the concept is not new, as losses have grown catastrophes have emerged as a new type of risk for which the insurance industry has a heightened sensitivity. Catastrophic risk has the potential for systemic market effects because of the many financial contracts that exist to cover the losses.    

What is significant about this is that ‘catastrophe,’ used in this way, is not a risk of the private property owner or of humanitarian concerns, but one of insurance industry finances.

Social Science
The term catastrophe is used in political rhetoric to appeal to varying notions of risk about the term.  Above, it is shown that insurers have a very specific quantitative meaning of the term.  Social science uses the term regarding noneconomic risks of disasters.  For instance, during their annual conference in 2009 the sociologically focused Natural Hazards Center ran a panel discussion titled, “Catastrophic Events: More than Just Big Disasters” with the following description,
The magnitude of damage, the destruction of vital resources, and the massive number of displaced victims after a catastrophic event pose extraordinary challenges for disaster response and long-term recovery.  
Catastrophic events place tremendous burdens on all agencies—local, state, and federal—and require a different approach to planning and preparedness than run-of-the-mill disasters. This session will discuss the differences and similarities in planning for large-scale catastrophes versus day-to-day (or year-to-year) disasters.

Public Decision Makers
The many concerns associated with catastrophe are compounded under the auspices of the ‘homeowners insurance crisis’ and used to gain political support for particular policy.  For example, Florida Congressional Representative Tim Mahoney in support of H.R. 3355, the Homeowners Defense Act, framed the problem as a “national catastrophe insurance crisis” (Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations 2008).

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