About Natural Disasters

Let’s talk a little bit about natural disasters.  But first . . .

A Little Post-War Trauma

I grew up in the old duck-and-cover days and spent most of my early life as an American civilian during the Cold War.

The images of exploding nuclear weapons and the knowledge that in any given moment my world could end in a sudden flash had a strong psychological effect through my childhood and adult life.

Like many others, I coped by always expecting the worst of any threat so I could be pleasantly surprised most of the time, and most importantly, would be as prepared as possible if The Bomb ever did go off in my vicinity some day.

That’s how you deal with having to live with the omnipresent potential for sudden horror, I guess, but it really ruins perspective over the long term.

And it stays with us.  Just because we made it through that war without the bombs going off doesn’t mean that all who experienced the daily stress of those years aren’t still a little bit traumatized by it all.

We are.

I wonder if this contributes to the general media tendency to “awfulize” any story about natural disasters.

Sure, they have a product to sell, but much of the current audience survived the Cold War and is therefore numbed.   Perhaps editors  must also shade the story somewhat towards the worst-case scenario just to get the reader’s attention.

These days, it’s really been uninteresting except when disasters occur.
— Attributed to James Van Allen

This desensitization makes it difficult to get realistic information out to those who don’t want to live in fear of the unknown and would rather plan head when it comes to natural hazards they may someday face.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Relearning How to Manage Risk

The lovely thing about the world not having ended in nuclear fire just yet is that humanity is thriving and our numbers of growing.  Unfortunately, that means more people than ever before are living in hazardous areas, and the risks aren’t always very clear.

For example, before Superstorm Sandy, how many New Yorkers thought of Coney Island as a disaster just waiting to happen?

Too, our world is interconnected through many networks.   The down side to that is, we can’t count on isolation to protect us as it used to – any interruption, even in a relatively small area, can have widespread and costly repercussions.

The first step in risk management, of course, is to identify the risk.  I would like to do that, as well as point toward qualified professionals for the other two parts of risk management:  assessment and prioritization.

However, because of the Cold War stress-related numbness mentioned above, it’s easy to get trapped in a worst-case feedback loop by summoning up lists of “most deadly disasters,” “most expensive disasters,” “biggest disasters”, and so forth – things that are bad enough to break through the protective psychological layers and make you feel something – only to get more stupefied by that horrible information, with the cycle repeating itself over and over again.

There must be a better way to talk about practical things you and I should know about natural disasters.

Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Aether/Space

Few take the old notion of five elements seriously these days, but there is something very satisfying about that construct.

Those five elements show how we experience the natural world, making it easier to imagine a natural disaster’s effect, whether the earth moves, winds blow, lightning strikes, water floods, or a solar flare knocks our communications and TV off the air.

Let’s save the “worst of” lists for another time and focus on each of these five facets of nature that can be threatening but, surprisingly, more often than not can be survived if one knows what to expect and how to act.

Each will be a stand-alone article, but its link will also be posted below.

  • Earth
  • Wind
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Aether (space)

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