Disasters as Usual: The Public Life of Recurring Floods in Dresden

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis

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In this thesis, I explore how citizens and public institutions have adjusted to recent recurring floods in Dresden. As a riverine city, Dresden regularly experienced damaging floods throughout its history, right up until the start of the Second World War. Then something strange happened. Although water levels in the Elbe still reached threatening heights on an annual basis, the next sixty years did not produce any flood event that overran the city's flood defences. In hindsight, Dresden experienced what historians of disaster call a disaster memory gap, whereby the collective memory of what floods entail gradually faded as a result of a long period without a major event.

Then, in August 2002, heavy rain for weeks on end caused the biggest flood on record in Dresden and across Central Europe. Thousands of homes were flooded, and damages in the city amounted to over 1 billion euros. It was quickly classified as a hundred-year event: a statistical outlier that was not likely to recur anytime soon. However, in June 2013, the third-largest flood on record broke the dikes that protect the city. Yet again, Dresden experienced an event that was only supposed to occur once every hundred years. The recent spate of floods in Dresden prompts us to investigate the nature of the relationship between the ordinary and the exceptional, since events that were once thought to be rare and extraordinary suddenly seem to be more and more frequent.

In the thesis, I explore how the citizens of Dresden are adjusting to a new understanding of the future in which recurring floods may prove to be the rule rather than the exception. In other words, floods have become what I term usual disasters. The ethnographic research that I conducted in 2014-2015 explores how locals, at this specific moment in time, perceive the future as being fraught with uncertainty. This has implications both for how people understand themselves as members of society as well as for the relationship between the state and civil society. In other words, floods in Dresden have a social, political and public life.

Rather than seeing disasters solely as either catalysed by patterns of vulnerability in society, or as catalytic events that shape the configuration of society, the thesis approaches floods in Dresden through what I call intertwinement. Floods are an integral and intertwined part of the history of Dresden, and are thus located within, rather than outside, society. As recurring events, the floods become intertwined with other political issues, such as the urban development of the city’s riverscape; the ability of citizens to participate in emergency response efforts; local opposition to government plans to build floodwalls and dikes; and finally, how solidarity toward flood victims enflamed a discussion of the meaning of solidarity between citizens. The thesis thus explores how floods perceived as recurring events are tied together with these and other political issues in Dresden, and argues that disaster politics should not only be conceived as a politics of the exceptional, but also as a politics of the usual.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherDepartment of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen
ISBN (Print)978-87-7209-016-0
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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