No Place on Earth Is Really Safe
As you read this, I will be comfortably back in the land of tornadoes.
I say that with a degree of irony, because, after living in Kansas City for 60 years, the closest I ever came to a tornado was the one that hit Southern Pines a few years ago. I still have never seen one.
One of the first questions consistently asked by new acquaintances once they discover the land of my origin is, "Aren't you afraid of tornadoes?" This is because everyone in the world has seen "The Wizard of Oz."
"No," I say, and look back at a puzzled face.
This season has put all that in a different light, but the odds are still way in your favor. It does not diminish the disasters in Joplin, Tuscaloosa and other places to say that Katrina and the earthquake in Japan were more destructive. The Mississippi floods will cause far more property damage, though, thankfully, people had time to get out of the way.
The hard fact is that when man confronts nature, nature almost always wins. We keep making things stronger, building levees higher, inventing faster, better warning systems, and still, when some irresistible force appears, sure enough, we can't resist it.
Part of the reason, of course, is that there are so many of us we just can't stay out of the way.
There was an earthquake in 1811 at the New Madrid fault in extreme southeastern Missouri. The nearest city today is Memphis. There was no Richter scale at the time, but it was a very big one, reportedly causing church bells to ring in Philadelphia.
Reporting was scattered, but there was clearly little property damage, for the obvious reason that there was little property. Estimates are that if a similar quake occurred today, Memphis could be virtually destroyed, with lots of damage in St. Louis and numerous smaller communities.
By the time you include earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires and whatever I'm leaving out, there is almost no place on earth where something bad can't happen. In virtually all cases, the best we can do is to try to save lives and leave the property to fate.
It does not help matters that we insist on clustering in large numbers along shorelines and rivers. This is partly because for most of history we have been dependent on water for transportation, and, of course, we have to drink the stuff and the view is nice. Besides, not everybody can live in Wyoming.
We are far better off than the poor nations of the world where countless people live in poverty a few feet above sea level with no means of escape and no money to defend themselves or to rebuild.
Is climate change occurring and making all this worse? The debate continues, but surely all that carbon dioxide, methane and whatever isn't helping anything. Still, climate change or not, you can't find even relatively safe places for seven billion people, and counting, to live. Maybe there are more natural disasters than ever, or maybe this is just a bad year; or maybe there is a lot more reporting from a lot more places than ever before.
It seems likely that the long-term trend for disasters will be up, if not in numbers or intensity, then in loss of life and property damage. The more we create, the more there is to be destroyed.
The population of New Orleans has shrunk substantially since Katrina. A lot of people were afraid to go back or just couldn't wait for things to return to something like normal.
The same thing may well happen to Joplin and other newly devastated locales. Finding that new, safer place may well be illusory.
Despite our continuing efforts, we remain small creatures on a much larger planet.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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