Hurricanes And Natural Forces
Some of the things you can do are the same for both a natural or man-made emergency. However, there are important differences among potential emergencies that will impact the decisions you make and the actions you take. Emergency preparedness is no longer the sole concern of earthquake prone Californians and those who live in the part of the country known as "Tornado Alley."
For Americans, preparedness must now account for man-made disasters as well as natural ones. Knowing what to do during an emergency is an important part of being prepared and may make all the difference when seconds count.
The Earth on which we live seems, most of the time, a very solid, safe place where things happen as we expect them to happen. But once in a while an event takes place that reminds us that in some ways our Earth, one of billions of bodies that make up the universe, is very fragile.
Its crust can move and split open, causing earthquakes and volcanoes. Its weather can suddenly deal deadly blows by way of hurricanes and floods. It is vulnerable to collisions with other bodies from space such as meteorites and comets.
The greatest disasters had their origins in natural forces connected with the Earth's geology and climate. Some could have been predicted by studying earlier eruptions of volcanoes or the regular pattern of the world's weather. Some disasters were completely unexpected.
One of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, in New Madrid, Missouri, in 1811, took place in an area that had no previous history of tremors. Such unexpected disasters show that, despite all our knowledge of the world we live in, it can still give us some grim surprises.
Natural disasters can spring from other causes. Some of the greatest killers in history have been diseases that swept uncontrollably across the world. In the days when the causes and spread of disease were not understood, these epidemics often lasted for years, bringing economic and social upheaval as they killed off productive workers and left the very old and the very young alone, weak and starving.
Each of the events is thoroughly documented, and every detail about them has been scrutinized and analyzed by dozens of scholars. Yet, for the most part, we don't seem to be any closer to understanding how or why they happened - or, in some cases, exactly what happened. The great Cretaceous extinction - which scientist Robert Bakker calls "the grandest evolutionary disaster of all time" - took place long before humans were around to take notes.
As anthropologist Lee Miller notes, "One great flaw in the writing of history is that we often tend to accept easy explanations of events." Eventually some scientist or historian who is not so easily satisfied comes along and challenges the consensus, setting the controversy in motion all over again-and ensuring that, in the words of another writer, "the miraculous, the mysterious, and the enigmatic are alive and well, and always have been."
There is something uniquely chilling about a natural disaster, the uncontrolled, unpreventable fury of normally benign elements: a blue sky now black exploding in water and electricity; the air around us suddenly quick, weaponized; a resort lake bewitched into a ferocious wall of water; the solidity of the very ground belied. In these moments nature proves its dominance, as if to remind us that there are some things in its arsenal before which we will always be powerless.
Some of these disasters occurred within a 50-year period, a fatal nexus in U.S. history when the population had grown dense enough to be wiped out in large numbers by one localized event, but before modern meteorological tools, warning systems, and telecommunications could forecast storms and allow people ample time to flee or take cover.
Despite the years between them, Katrina and the other calamities share several unfortunate refrains. In the inattention paid to the New Orleans levees we hear echoes of both the poor maintenance of the dam that unleashed the Johnstown flood and the refusal of Galveston officials to build a seawall; the government’s lax response after Katrina plays like a reprise of Florida’s in 1928. In fact, recurring themes run through all these disasters.
First, as horrifying as earthquakes and tornadoes are, history tells us that when disaster strikes America, it does its worst mixing wind and water. The deadliest American natural disasters were hurricanes, joined by one tornado, one flood, one earthquake, and one forest fire.
All left behind common images: victims clinging to debris for survival, cities and towns transformed into piles of rubble, the ground littered with so many dead that there was not enough room for graves. Many of the casualty figures probably underestimate the actual losses, since in most cases entire families were wiped out, with no one left to report them gone.
Taken together, these events also show that disaster, be it Katrina or the earthquake in San Francisco, almost always hits hardest below the poverty line. Farthest from the reach of telegraph, phone, or radio, the poor have also had the flimsiest housing and most limited access to transportation. So with no warning of impending doom and no way to escape, indigents have often been trapped in shacks that offered little protection.
If there is any consolation to be gained from these grim stories, it is that from Galveston to San Francisco the disasters inspired local improvements and scientific and technological advances. After the Johnstown flood the Weather Bureau moved from the Army to the Department of Agriculture and began forecasting not just for the military but for the entire country. The bureau teamed up with the infant Marconi Company two years after the Galveston hurricane to radio weather warnings to ships on the ocean.
The San Francisco earthquake provided the budding field of seismology with invaluable evidence, and after the Florida hurricane of 1928 the Hoover administration built a 40-foot dam in place of the earthen barrier on Lake Okeechobee.
As a result of such efforts, large casualty figures from natural disasters became increasingly rare as the twentieth century went on. For a people who believed technology was the road to progress, weather must have seemed like the last frontier. As Erik Larson writes in Isaac’s Storm, a book about the Galveston hurricane, “There was talk even of controlling the weather—of subduing hail with cannon blasts and igniting forest fires to bring rain. In this new age, nature itself seemed no great obstacle.”
But no matter how confident we may be with our machines, perhaps it takes a storm like Katrina to remind us we cannot yet—and will probably never—control the weather. Instead, technology has allowed us to forge an uneasy truce with nature, giving us just enough time to get out of its way.
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