by Marsha L. Baum. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007. 248pp. Hardback. $44.95/£25.95. ISBN: 9780275221294.

Reviewed by Stephen Meinhold, Department of Public and International Affairs, University of North Carolina Wilmington. Email: meinholds [at] uncw.edu.


My hunch is that most readers of the Law and Politics Book Review are not terribly different from me, they get up in the morning – and check the weather; they prepare to retire – and check the weather. Some of you, and here I include myself, might even be weather geeks; and for us a recent book by Marsha Baum, WHEN NATURE STRIKES, is a welcome addition to our library. Baum examines a topic that is without any other treatment. A quick keyword search of the LPBR archives uncovers no other books on “weather and law” and the same appears true for a general library search. Perhaps it is because so little has been written about the subject that Baum’s effort feels more supplementary than comprehensive (it may also be because of its brevity at 138pp of text), but that does not detract from its unique contribution.

The book is largely historical and descriptive (there are no tables, charts, graphs or pictures). It lacks a general theoretical or empirical approach, but it does provide a useful overview of the important and largely ignored relationship between the weather and law. Such first efforts to synthesize a large amount of case law are bound to be more descriptive than explanatory and such is the case with Baum’s effort. But the book will be useful to scholars and instructors in the general areas of law and disasters and may also be useful for instructors looking for supplementary readings on civil liability and sovereign immunity that have a weather or disaster dimension.

WHEN NATURE STRIKES focuses on three topics: “the history and role of government in weather reporting, forecasting, and warning systems; human attempts to affect the weather and governmental regulation of those efforts; and, liability for harm resulting from weather-related incidents that affect individuals” (p.xiii). Most of the book focuses on the third topic, with chapters on “Governmental Liability for Injury to Individuals,” “Civil Liabilities for Weather-Related Harm,” “Crime and Weather,” and “Weather and the Justice System.” These are the chapters that will be of the most interest and utility to LBPR readers and that are more thoroughly examined below. The first two chapters, which cover “Weather Forecasting and Warning Systems” and “Taming the Weather through Science and Technology,” provide useful background on the selected topics but are less connected to the “law” than the remaining chapters, evidenced by far fewer case citations or other direct connections to the legal system.

Chapter 3 explores the liability of government at all levels for its weather related functions, such as “providing forecasting and warning systems; [*52] maintaining roads and sidewalks in usable conditions; removing citizens from harms’ way by directing traffic or offering shelter; and, seeking to mitigate harm to property or persons by instituting programs to protect society from disasters and harm” (p.39). Baum reviews the general principles of sovereign and limited immunity and describes the many failed attempts by litigants to hold the government responsible for weather related behavior and accidents. As is the case with the rest of the book, Baum weaves interesting case stories into the general narrative of the chapter; and as a result the book will appeal to a wide range of undergraduate and graduate students. This chapter will be most useful for instructors looking to supplement their readings on governmental immunity with a brief chapter that provides interesting weather related cases and anecdotes.

Chapter 4 examines the relationship between civil law and weather, focusing primarily on the liability of coaches, tournament directors, property owners, and weather forecasters for harm that occurs as a result of their action or inaction. This is perhaps the strongest chapter of book and would stand very nicely as a supplemental reading to other coursework on civil liability. Baum’s introduction to law and civil liability is brief yet complete, and the subsequent cases and narrative provide a particularly engaging series of real life examples to complement the hypothetical questions.

Chapter 5 deals with the criminal justice system and weather related disasters. The chapter begins with a section on looting, which provides a good description of the history and case law surrounding the subject, but in my opinion fails to incorporate a sufficient amount of the vast social science literature on this topic. The length and goals of WHEN NATURE STRIKES preclude a full review of this literature, but the degree of neglect here leaves the reader with a limited perspective, perpetuating the myth that looting is rampant after disasters, while the footnoted material and, more importantly, the sociology of disaster research more generally suggest otherwise. The general academic consensus is that looting is atypical after disasters and was likely overstated after Hurricane Katrina (e.g., Barsky, Lauren, Trainor, and Torres 2006; Quarantelli 2006).

Chapter 6 explores the connection between weather and the justice system, noting that all aspects of the justice system are affected by the weather. Baum considers the relationship between weather and crime rates, weather as it is used as evidence, and the admissibility of weather as evidence. Each of these topics is covered briefly but ably. The remainder of the chapter is concerned with the role weather plays in access to justice, and this material is particularly interesting. Several probing questions are posed about weather and access to justice, including how individuals displaced from weather disasters are treated (e.g., notification in lawsuits, delays in court hearings, transfer of custody to other jurisdictions, and so on) and the availability of legal services. The material cited by Baum in this chapter is relatively new and still under development, suggesting a fruitful line of possible doctoral dissertations. This is particularly true because all signs point to a continued increase in disasters [*53] and dramatic climate change, which are bound to generate increased stress on the legal system.

The final chapter of the book provides cursory coverage of future issues, including globalization and the potential for changes in causes of action, as weather forecasting becomes increasing sophisticated.

One drawback of the book is that it is largely historical yet includes a number of references to recent “law and weather” events, particularly those surrounding FEMA and Hurricane Katrina. These references are interesting, but they tend to be cursory and incomplete because the litigation has not yet concluded or the case law had not yet been tested, causing them to detract from, rather than complement the rest of the material. As an aside, I was left wondering after nearly every chapter about how other countries handle the issues that are addressed in WHEN NATURE STRIKES. A companion to this volume considering the similar or very different way that legal systems around the world address “weather and the law” would be a valuable contribution.

Baum’s WHEN NATURE STRIKES includes a particularly good and thorough “Glossary of Weather Terms” which could be used by instructors in a wide variety of courses as supplementary material. In case you are wondering, as I write this, the current conditions in Wilmington are: 53˚F with 28% Humidity and winds out of the West at 3MPH.

Barsky, Lauren, Joseph Trainor, and Manuel Torres. 2006. “Disaster realities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Revisiting the looting myth.” Quick Response Research Report 184. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center. http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/qr/qr184/qr184.html .

Quarentelli, E.L. 2006. “Catastrophes are Different from Disasters: Some Implications for Crisis Planning and Managing Drawn from Katrina.” Social Science Research Council, New York: NY. http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Quarantelli/.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Stephen Meinhold.