Disaster City is the name of a training compound in College Station, Texas, where first responders prepare for catastrophic scenarios through hands-on practice. In “This Is Not a Test,” his July cover story, Barrett Swanson visits Disaster City to participate in a simulated catastrophe, uncovering in the process the dark side of our society’s fixation on disaster preparedness. In narrating his experience as one of the simulation’s “Victim Volunteers,” Swanson ferries us through the compound’s funhouse-mirror vision of America, complete with elaborate replicas of real disasters such as a bombed-out parking garage and a tornado-shredded motel.
But there’s something disturbing lurking within this “Disneyland for first responders.” Much like the real Disneyland, Swanson suggests, the function of Disaster City is to obscure the way the world outside the park really works. As the emblem of the American preparedness mindset, Disaster City “seems to sanction and sacralize the inevitability of catastrophes”—at the expense of a deeper reckoning with the structural problems that produce them. According to this mindset, there can only ever be triage, as opposed to true prevention. In this episode, Barrett Swanson joins Harper’s Magazine web editor Violet Lucca to explore the lessons he learned while reporting from Disaster City, and how they might apply to the disaster in which we now find ourselves. The two discuss the inspiration Swanson drew from his personal experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder; the lessons we failed to learn from the Gulf War and Hurricane Katrina; and how French critical theory anticipated our current system of disaster capitalism.