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A shock to the system

My World's on Fire
A shock to the system
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #29 • View online

My World’s on Fire is a newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and spread the word!
This week, I had an article five months in the making published. The Disaster Flashpointdives deep into the impacts of some of this year’s cascading crises through the experiences of two families in Southwest Louisiana, taking a step back to offer context on how our federal disaster system was established before considering what happens after this difficult, heartbreaking, and revealing year.
My article was the first feature on the newly-relaunched Fenix, a site committed to in-depth, nuanced journalism. To support that mission, the site is paywalled, but you can get this first read free just by creating an account. As a little extra incentive, I’m also sharing the first section of the article with you below.
If you got a chance to check out the article, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I also shared a bit about the reporting process for thoseinterested on Twitterand in the Fenix newsletter, which accurately pegs me as someone who “voluntarily listens in on FEMA webinars” (I really can’t judge anyone else’s pandemic hobbies, can I?). Keep on scrolling down for your last links roundup of 2020 (!) and of course, a little something for reading to the end.
Excerpt: The Disaster Flashpoint
Screenshot from Fenix
Screenshot from Fenix
When the Matheson family drove up to the road they typically followed to their farm, it was gone. It had been flooded with stormwater, now more closely resembling a river lined by trees and precariously tilting power poles. So, they got out of their car, left it behind, and walked, following along the path that, for nearly nine decades, had led generations of their family home.
Their destination was “unrecognizable.”
“Trees completely gone, riding arena gone, barns gone, pipe fences with concrete posts pulled out of the ground and tossed across the pasture. Windows blown out of our home, with roof damage and beyond,” Allie Matheson recites, a laundry list of issues to describe the place where she raised two sons.
“Devastating,” she adds. “Overwhelming.”
If you ask Matheson where she lives, she offers a poetic answer: “As a crow flies, we are located about 15 miles from the Gulf Coast, the heart of ‘God’s country.’”
On a map, that puts them in Cameron Parish, where Hurricane Laura made landfall on August 27, 2020. It was a Category 4 hurricane with wind gusts reaching 154 miles per hour, flirting with a Category 5. Experts quickly added it to the rankings as one of the strongest recorded storms to hit the United States and the strongest to hit Louisiana in more than 150 years. Aerial footage taken in the days following shows miles of flooding, pockmarked roofs, and building parts littering lawns.
“The vastness of the devastation, the chaos, the impact is literally indescribable,” Matheson says. “I am still in shock when visiting areas I haven’t seen since the storm.”
You can drive a road home countless times, know its curves and potholes by memory, only to one day find it unrecognizable. That’s a reality not just for those affected by Hurricane Laura, but for a growing population of Americans across the country.
Weeks before Laura, a powerful derecho swept through Iowa; weeks after, it was record-breaking wildfires across the West. There have been so many tropical storms, we ran through an alphabet’s worth of names. All of this happened against the backdrop of COVID-19, a federally-designated emergency in every state in the country.
Sociologist Charles E. Fritz pinpointed societal shock as one of the consequences of disasters. They upend the rules we live by and shatter our day-to-day norms. This shock, Fritz explained, often causes people to reflect on their lives and reconsider what they want moving forward. It plants “seeds of change.”
“People see the opportunity for realizing certain wishes that remained latent and unfulfilled under the old system,” Fritz wrote. “They see new roles that they can create for themselves. They see the possibility of wiping out old inequities and injustices.” 
The confluence of disasters in 2020 has already altered our society. Every level of government has implemented policies in response to COVID-19. Aid agencies are being created; social media support groups are being formed. The disproportionate toll of disasters on lower-income communities and people of color have fueled protests. 
But these actions are still taking place within that same old system, as Fritz called it — a system reluctant to address its ingrained inequities and injustices even as years of mounting tragedies have pushed them to the surface.   
So, while the magnitude of devastation this year has forced change, that doesn’t mean progress is inevitable. Faced with our own moment of shock and its accompanying sense of opportunity, we’re presented with a choice: Will we continue following the road that failed us before? Or will we recognize the unique potential we now hold to reset our approach, building a new path that takes us forward?
On my radar
  • 🎧 Inside firefighter training for the formerly incarceratedThis podcast episode is one of my favorites of the year – and I listen to a lot! It offers a comprehensive, incredibly personal look at what it’s like for formerly incarcerated Californians training to be firefighters after a long-awaited policy shift this year.(Ear Hustle)
  • 📚 How José Andrés gets it done The celebrity chef’s non-profit, World Central Kitchen, has seemingly been everywhere disaster struck this year – so yeah, he’s been busy. A revealing profile of how he does it. (Huffington Post)
  • 🎨 A devastating hurricane season, illustratedA look back at how it impacted Louisiana through comics. (
  • 📚 ‘It took a pandemic to raise public awareness of farmworker issues’ This deeply reported article uses one farmworker’s experience being impacted by Hurricane Florence in 2018 and now by COVID-19 to expose a broader issue: “Romero’s experiences are crucial reminders that before and during a public health emergency or natural disaster, farmworkers — those who are undocumented and those who are on federal H-2A work visas — are often left to fend for themselves.” (Southerly & Enlace Latino NC)
  • 📚 Wildfire season is still not overWhy more fires stretching into the winter might become the norm. (E&E News)
As always…
thank you for being a part of this community. My World’s on Fire is 100% funded by reader donations, and by clicking the button below, you’ll keep it going into the new year!
Or, spread the word on social media to get a shout-out in future editions. Thanks again to Fenix for supporting my work, and be sure to follow the outlet for more longform journalism.
Also, @colleenhagerty’s newsletter is impeccably sourced and beautifully written. 10/10 recommend
Now, here’s something for reading to the end.
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