Review of “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” (by Judith Helfand, distributed by Bullfrog Films, 2018).

The film “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” is based on the book – “Heatwave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago”.[1] The title of the film is a powerful depiction of the heatwave that ravaged across the city of Chicago in 1995.

The opening lines by Judith Helfand – “what is the best way to prepare for a disaster” – sets the tone well for what to expect in the film. The film begins with Helfand’s own experience during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Helfand explains that possessing a disaster preparedness kit can be a luxury for millions of people. During Sandy, Helfand uses her social capital (family) to move to safety and highlights that millions of others do not have the same social capital and safety nets. Further, the majority of the people do not have access to basic disaster preparedness kits. Later, the focus in the film shifts to the devastating heat wave in Chicago in 1995. The film shows the disproportionate impacts of the heatwave on the elderly and the Black and African American communities in poor neighborhoods. These impacts are clearly linked to poverty and the systemic construction of risk and vulnerability. Although the film effectively discusses “unnatural disasters”, it reiterates the use of the term “natural” disasters. Social science disaster research has provided ample evidence for decades that disasters are not natural. Hazards are natural.[2] A natural hazard becomes a disaster when it interacts with factors of risk, vulnerability, and exposure. The factors of vulnerability are rooted in historical systems of power and injustice, access to resources (financial, social, political). The various factors of vulnerability determine the level of disproportionate impacts different communities might face during disasters. By using the term “natural” disasters, we give an easy escape route to governments and corporations to blame nature or the climate instead of addressing issues of risk and vulnerability.

Disasters reveal layers of societal inequalities[3] in the form of disproportionate impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic has further unfolded this story across the world.[4] In the film, taking a deeper analysis of the Chicago heatwave of 1995, it is made clear how root causes of vulnerabilities such as systemic racism[5] play a central and significant role in disaster impacts.[6] The interviews and powerful accounts of many individuals in the film are examples to show the real causes of these disproportionate impacts on certain groups of people. For example, poverty and lack of access to resources make it almost impossible for some groups to prepare for disasters. Yet, after every disaster, governments and other actors continue to rebuild status quo and sometimes create new risk in this process of disaster recovery. Briefly, the film also highlights the impact of the Hurricane Katrina of 2005 showing similar patterns of disproportionate disaster effects on different communities. Although Katrina occurred a decade after the Chicago heatwave, it appears that not much has changed with regard to vulnerability of some groups of people. Disaster related memories seem to be short and learnings from disasters seem to be minimal. The film highlights an interesting conversation on the need to redefine disasters. Helfand raises the question – why isn’t poverty termed as a disaster? As Tierney highlights, “the patterns of differential vulnerability and differential impacts in the Katrina disaster mirrored those documented by social scientists in other hazard and disaster contexts, particularly those who conduct research within the vulnerability science paradigm” (p. 208).[7]

In response to the Chicago heatwave, Helfand shows different interventions being taken in under privileged neighborhoods. However, these interventions are fragmented and do not address issues of risk, vulnerability, and discrimination which are the underlying causes of disasters that need to be solved to reduce devastating impacts. The film challenges the need to spend big money on disaster simulations and trainings. Here, the critique against the system should be that disaster risk management is primarily response oriented. In a changing world, we need to be prepared for disasters while we continue to address root causes. The film also shows some of the mitigation related efforts taken by the city (for example, green roofs) in the aftermath of the heatwave. While mitigation activities are important, they are not sufficient. We need to continue investing in planning and preparing to ensure that hazards do not turn into disasters and societies need to be prepared at all times to respond. The core message must be – leave no one behind!

Overall, the film highlights many important questions that need to be addressed both at higher policy levels and at an operational level. Indeed, political decisions have a huge impact on how risks and vulnerabilities are transferred over  different generations. This aspect could have been better discussed in the film so to build a narrative on why some communities are historically disproportionately affected. Disasters are political and are related “to an amalgam of household and neighborhood level activities and networks for disaster response that happen outside of the gaze of the formalized governance arrangements but underlie and affect such arrangements and practices nonetheless” (p.215).[8] These invisible forms of governance very much shape the everyday life of people, i.e. the construction of risk and vulnerability. Further, given the context of climate change and extreme weather events, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must be kept in mind. Disasters often set back years of development and complicate efforts to achieve the SDGs. A strong concerted effort to address the SDGs is needed with a strong focus on dynamics of risk and how to enhance societal resilience. The film does a good job in highlighting the real causes of disasters and the need for policy makers to pay attention to risk reduction and development.

[1] Klinenberg, E. (2015). Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

[2] O’Keefe, P., Westgate, K., and Wisner, B. (1976). Taking the Naturalness out of Natural Disasters. Nature 260(5552):566–567.

[3] Raju, E., and van Niekerk, D. (2020). Why Do the Impacts of Coronavirus Disease 2019 and the Response Surprise the World? Jàmbá – Journal of Disaster Risk Studies, 12(1).

[4] Raju, E., and Ayeb-Karlsson, S. (2020). COVID-19: How Do You Self-isolate in a Refugee Camp? International Journal of Public Health.

[5] Bolin B., and Kurtz L.C. (2018). Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability. In: Rodríguez H., Donner W., Trainor J. (eds) Handbook of Disaster Research. Springer, pp 181-203.

[6] Wisner, B. et al. (2004) At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters. Routledge.

[7] Tierney K. (2006). Foreshadowing Katrina: Recent Sociological Contributions to Vulnerability Science. Contemporary Sociology, 35(3):207-212.

[8] Hilhorst, D., Boersma, K., and Raju, E. (2020). Research on Politics of Disaster Risk Governance: Where Are We Headed? Politics and Governance, 8(4):214–219.

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