Balkan Floods, Hurricane Katrina, and the Future of Dispossession

“…Because it seemed to me that Petersburg’s whole life story is here, brilliantly crystallized and compressed: a vision of the city’s grandeur and magnificence, and a vision of the madness on which it is based – the mad idea that a volatile nature can be permanently tamed and dominated by imperial will; nature’s revenge, erupting cataclysmically, smashing grandeur into rubble, shattering lives and hopes; the vulnerability and terror of Petersburg’s common people caught in the midst of the crossfire in a battle of giants”

 — Marshall Berman on the poem “The Bronze Horseman: A Petersburg Tale” in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

On May 13th, an area of warm wet Mediterranean air that normally would have ridden the jet stream right over the Balkans, was blocked by polar air from Central Europe, causing it to release its moisture as rain. For the next 76 hours, the cyclone released two month’s worth of torrential rain, causing floods and landslides that destroyed buildings, roads, bridges, fields and exposed land mines. Bosnia and Hercegovina, Serbia and Croatia declared States of Emergency.

 In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, the Red Cross and ReliefWeb were reporting 1.6 million people affected (22 percent) in Serbia with more than 1 billion euros in preliminary recovery costs. In BiH more than 950,000 evacuated their homes and 1.5 million people (39 percent) were affected in some way by the water. In Croatia 38,000 were affected and damage to agriculture alone is expected to reach at least 30 million euros. The general consensus is that between 53-60 people were killed, but since bodies are often found during recovery from disaster events, the death toll is contested.

Flood visual of affected areas (Photo credit: Al-Jazeera Balkans)
Flood visual of affected areas (Photo credit: Al-Jazeera Balkans)

There has been widespread coverage of the solidarity that emerged from this event. There were graphics about it. Regionally, families and communities have be lauded for taking in victims of flooding. From young people self-organizing on ever-newsworthy social media, to civilians taking their own boats and skills to flooded areas to assist in rescues, to volunteering in evacuation centers, people showed up for each other. Support was sent from 19 EU member states: equipment, personnel, rescue teams, food, and money. Russian EMERCOM was on the ground with search and rescue units. The UN, Croatia and Macedonia sent tons of drinking water to Bosnia and Serbia. Albania deployed a flood rescue team in Orasje, BiH. The list goes on.

But as the floodwaters receded, new problems surfaced, and for an American following the events from the relative safety of Belgrade, it felt like Hurricane Katrina 2.0. For readers unfamiliar, Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane that hit southeast Louisiana in 2005. It was one of the most intense and deadly storms in US history, and caused one of the most costly engineering failures in history.[1] As an event, Katrina became infamous for issues now emerging in the Balkans – censorship, unpreparedness, mismanagement of funds, and people in various positions of power pointing the finger and placing the blame anywhere but with themselves.

Articles decrying the Serbian government’s persecution of social media vigilantes for “spreading panic” by reporting on the flooding couched Vucic’s censorship in reference to Milosevic’s despotism, reminding us of the red flags for early stage dictatorship. It reminded me of how in the aftermath of Katrina, CNN filed a lawsuit against Defense Department and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) policies aimed at blocking the documentation of deaths and victim recovery.

In BiH, national emergency mode was not declared until well into the storm on May 15th, causing observing experts to ask about insufficient preventative action despite early and clear meteorological warnings.  New Orleans also delayed its emergency evacuation until just a day before the storm; those left behind were largely the city’s homeless, elderly, sick, and otherwise incapable of getting themselves out. Further preventative action failed in the form of catastrophically ineffective levee systems.

NGOs, independent institutions, and the public are concerned about the management of the 24.5 million euros in donated funds in Serbia, and there has been scrutiny of tenders taking place in the aftermath; FEMA came under fire for their money management, shelling out $3.6 billion for dodgy rebuilding contracts.

Now, as Serbian police investigate whether local ineptitude is in any way responsible for the devastation of flooding, Vucic has said that the “main responsibility for acting in emergency situations lies with local authorities.” In response, Belgrade’s English bi-weekly ran a cover story with the headline “Witch hunt”.  “Local, state, or federal” was the responsibility juggling game of Katrina as well. And ineptitude was the modus operandi: Michael Brown, the director of FEMA, famously admitted that his organization literally did not know about the starving crowds of approximately 50,000 residents of New Orleans who had weathered the storm in the Convention Center until a full three days after Katrina had hit.

The parallels are useful to understand. As Mary Ann Hennessy, head of the Council of Europe for Bosnia and Herzegovina said, “Rain does not kill people. Bad governments, negligence and corruption kill people” – a fact that is not unique to the Balkans. All of this seems to indicate that governance – organization, preparedness, and infrastructure — can make for either much more, or much less human suffering.

Hurricane Katrina Victim, Sept 1, 2005, New Orleans. (Photo credit: Eric Gay)
Hurricane Katrina Victim, Sept 1, 2005, New Orleans. (Photo credit: Eric Gay)

Of course, this idea is well established within the concepts and policies of climate change adaptation. As reported in other articles by Balkanist, extreme weather events are expected to increase in the coming years. An article on Climate Central acknowledged that it was difficult to pin individual weather events on climate change, but that “climate scientists expect extreme rainfall events to become more frequent in a warming world” because when “the temperature of the atmosphere increases,” it can hold more water vapor, “weighting the dice toward heavier rains.”

The issue of climate change is frustrating for humans because its complexity is confusing for our systems of law and reason, which love good old-fashioned direct causality. But that’s not how weather and climate work. As Scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research explained in an article on the relationship between small changes in average climate and major changes in extreme weather:

“Scientists are frequently asked about an event. ‘Is it caused by climate change?’ The answer is that no events are ‘caused by climate change’ or global warming, but all events have a contribution,” he states. “In reality the wrong question is being asked: the question is poorly posed and has no satisfactory answer. The answer is that all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

For many countries, vulnerability to the imagined futures of climate change inversely relates to their contribution to the conditions of possibility. Compensation efforts to deal with this inequality are politically going nowhere and actual regional efforts to confront this reality are minimal. Meanwhile, in the economic short term, the race for competitiveness in the modern economy results in sad double-whammies: “energy systems like Serbia’s which are over-reliant on coal and highly centralized are not only causing more climate change, they are also extremely vulnerable to its impacts.”

Who are the most vulnerable to climate changes’ impacts? Whose daily life will it change?  Climate change is expected to hit poor countries the hardest, but we didn’t need models and forecasting to tell us this:

“We know from ‘normal’ extreme-weather events that poor countries have it the roughest. From 1980-2007, only 15 percent of hurricanes, typhoons, and the like happened in low-income countries, but 68 percent of people killed by these storms died in poor nations.” Even if the effects of climate change were equally distributed across “developed” and “developing” countries, extreme events in places with worse infrastructure, that are less prepared, will be more intense.

Bosnians evacuating flooded homes in Topcic Polje, near Zepce on May 16, 2014. (Photo credit: Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
Bosnians evacuating flooded homes in Topcic Polje, near Zepce on May 16, 2014. (Photo credit: Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

The United States is a rich country but Katrina hit some of the poorest states in the nation. New Orleans is an especially poverty-stricken city, and according to census data, one in four residents lived in poverty before the storm hit. Half did not own a vehicle — 65 percent did not own a car among the elderly — making it more difficult for them to leave. The victims of the storm were overwhelmingly the poorest in the city, and one in three were African-American. The UN report assessing the Balkan flooding identified small-scale farmers as being especially devastated by the floods, having lost this years’ crop and battling soil contamination from leaking hazardous waste and chemicals. A UN aid organization working to deliver humanitarian assistance to particularly vulnerable groups reported a Roma couple in a Belgrade settlement as saying, “For us, every day is like these floods and a state of emergency. No one visited us for a while, [until] now.” People who are already vulnerable experience disasters from a different proximity because of their day-to-day precarity.

 A Vice article on the Balkan floods made one point worth repeating here:  “…intellectually we’ve been well aware of the threat posed by climate change for a long time, but when that realization finally makes the leap into our emotions, it’ll be far too late.” Which reminds me of something New Orleans resident and flood victim Benny Pete said regarding the collapse of the levees: “If they knew it could have happened, it’s almost like they let it happen.”

August 30, 2005, New Orleans, LA. (Photo credit: Bill Haber/AP)
August 30, 2005, New Orleans, LA. (Photo credit: Bill Haber/AP)

I suggest that we have before us what the politics of coming to grips will look like.  It is not obvious how experiences from everyday life — the fact that you don’t drive in order to personally emit less CO2, or how it was much more expensive for you to buy food one summer, or that all of your material possessions were destroyed in a historic flood – connect to climate change. It will never be obvious and clear and in fact, that may be the most sinister feature of this kind of violence: it is difficult to conceptualize the blame. What is terribly clear however, is how changes in the weather carve deeper and wider distances between those everyday experiences. It is clear that as a force weather will further separate peoples’ lives, making them more or less painful. People with safety nets will be comparatively safer, because those without are more likely to fall through. Falling through the cracks tastes like the meat pate and cans of fish handed out in Emergency Centers in Belgrade. It smells like spilled sewage and rotting animals in the Lower Ninth Ward.  Whether you can take the cascade of effects from the swollen Sava and Morava rivers in 2014 as a direct manifestation of climate change or not, you can read it and events like it as the future of dispossession.


I started this article with a quote from a book about modern art because it has helped me understand these processes. In 1833 St. Petersburg was trying to be a modern[1] city, nine years after a historic flood. To that end it had hustled for one hundred years, taking people, politics, traditions, dreams, buildings and blood as payment. Serbia and Bosnia and Croatia are trying to be modern countries, along with every other country in the world. “The Bronze Horseman” was a poem that turned a flood into a symbol of nature’s spiritual energy. The flood exacted revenge on Petersburg for the Faustian mania that drove its modernizing while the Tsar unironically claimed imperial glory. It was about the puny antiheroes who get crushed along the way.

Poetry is relevant here. It is not only poets that anthropomorphize weather; the Balkan storm was officially named “Tamara” (or “Yvette”). The fact that Vucic “dreamed of Belgrade on water and got Serbia underwater” feels like a literary flourish.  Most of the people interviewed about Katrina mention God at some point. The problem is the floods this May were not the revenge of nature, or an act of God’s or Gaia’s will. In our modern societies, scientific epistemologies take primacy so in fact, when God is Dead, a scarier truth emerges — the floods appear as an effect of “our” will. Our hundreds of years of working at modernization, of industrializing, of changing the atmosphere. But the “we,” the “our,” and the “us,” are deeply divided, as they were in Pushkin’s time, and this manifests itself in every feature of climate change, from politically botched response efforts to basic scientific causes. The future of dispossession will reflect this deepening division; as American philosopher Marshall Berman said about Pushkin’s poem, it’ll be a vision of madness with “the vulnerability and terror of Petersburg’s the Balkans’ Everybody’s common people caught in the midst of the crossfire in a battle of giants.”

[1] There are 1 million books that can be read to analyze what we mean by “modern” in every context- art, literature, technology, economics, politics, etc. Instead of providing some essential definition, I think I mean whatever your impressions of this word might be.


[1] For an excellent account of what Hurricane Katrina was like, check out Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke, available on Youtube.


Grace Phillips is an alumnus of the SIT Study Abroad Program Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo: Peace and Conflict Studies in the Balkans. The 15-week (semester) program allows students to examine peacebuilding, post-conflict transformation, and the impact of international intervention on state formation, human rights, and transitional justice in the comparative context of Southeast Europe. Each student conducts an independent Study Project (ISP) during the last month of the semester. The above article was adapted from Phillips’s ISP.  

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Grace Phillips

Grace Phillips is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she received degrees in Philosophy and Geography. She will be doing an MA in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths this fall.