Hurricanes, Humans, and Hubris

Eye of Hurricane Katrina "You are like a Hurricane, there is a calm in your eye" Neil Young: "Hurricane" Ah Neil, that sure was a vivid description you gave in your song "Hurricane". Artists so often use forces of nature as imagery that we sometimes forget the actual magnitude of the events. How they can affect the lives of thousands, if not millions of people. It's not until something of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina shows up that we begin to understand our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Reading articles like the one toady at "The Globe and Mail's" web site describing the enforced evacuation of the whole of New Orleans serves only to remind us that we can never leave nature out of our calculations. With a great deal of the city below sea level, New Orleans is dependant on a series of levees, canals and pumps to keep it dry at the best of times. But the potential floods caused by a storm of this strength could literally make it uninhabitable. (For a nice overview of the system of levees constructed in the Mississippi basin check out this post at blogcritics.org by Dr.Pat) If the worse case scenario plays out, scientists predict that the city could be swamped by a nine-metre cesspool of human waste, toxic waste, and even coffins. Those who can't be evacuated, tourists and the poor, are being bussed to last ditch shelters, including the Superdome. Look at the satellite picture up at the top of this post. What a nasty red eye glaring at us. For those of us with an anthropomorphic take on things it's easy to postulate that Old Mother Nature is right pissed with us. That's the type of eye you'd usually associate with a biker who's been running on cheap speed and booze for a week. Not a person to mess with. Let's face facts for a change. We haven't been the nicest of tenants. We spill shit all over the place and don't clean up after ourselves; we blow huge holes in things; we make noise all day and night without caring about the neighbours; and when we use up one place we just move on to somewhere new, leaving the old place next to uninhabitable. Any landlord worth his salt would have had us evicted long ago. But Nature has been really forgiving. She even lets us get away with murder on nearly a daily basis. Hardly a day goes by without some species of life being exterminated. We may not have been the direct cause, going out and actively hunting it down, but the way we live is not conducive for encouraging any one else's continuation. Our ever-increasing demands for food, shelter, energy, and whatever else we may fancy that day, has caused the available habitat for other creatures to dwindle at an alarming rate. I know there are those of you out there who will say that God gave us dominion over the planet and told us to go forth, be fruitful and multiply. That's all very well and good, but what are you going to do when there's nothing left to have dominion over except a lot of desert. Build sand castles? The Old Testament was written long before the invention of the internal combustion engine, atomic power, and a multitude of other things that the folk writing it couldn't have predicted. In those days, prior to Christ for you out there in want of some perspective, the world was a lot simpler and smaller. None of us can postulate any more successfully than any one else, what they would say about today's reality. The majority of large scale disasters seem to happen in the developing world a lot more often than in North America. It's like twisters and mobile homes; more often than not a tornado will destroy a mobile home park. No one has painted a bull's eye on them for twisters to aim for literally, but we might just as well have. No foundations, flimsy construction and spread out in an open space, they are simply more subject to damage by high winds than other types of structures. In countries where cities were built up around seaports, because shipping was and still is the primary means of trade, it is only natural that there will be a higher percentage of wind and tide related disasters than an inland city. Poverty and population density are also considerations when measuring a storm's impact. When there are countless numbers of people living in squalid and flimsy structures, with insufficient infrastructure to support them, damage will be far more severe than in other instances. The age of a city will also factor into any potential for damage. Cities like Mumbai (Bombay) and Calcutta; designed for pre automobile traffic, sustain more damage from a storm than a modern city like New York of Boston. Hurricane Katrina has exposed another mitigating factor that impacts on a storm's potential for damage: our pride in our technical expertise. It used to be there were conventions for writing plays. For a work to be considered a tragedy it had to focus upon a central character who is brought down by a flaw in his character. (Thus the saying a tragic flaw) A favourite of Classical Greek theatre was hubris which means exaggerated pride in ones abilities and self. The only reason that anybody can even live in New Orleans in the first place are through the artificial means that I mentioned earlier in this article. Due to our hubris concerning our ability to control the natural flow of a river as huge as the Mississippi, one million people now face the prospect of being made homeless for an extended period of time. Who knows, if the worst-case scenario comes about, how long it will be before New Orleans is habitable again. Will the floodwaters even recede? Or will the damage to the work of the army Corps of Engineers up and down the Mississippi be so substantial that it can never be restored? Those are all very real possibilities, simply because no one has any idea what the actual impact on the system will be. How many other places in the world have been built in areas that we should have stayed clear of? You'd think we'd have learnt the lessons taught us by Pompeii and Herculaneum which were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE. San Francisco burning to the ground didn't stop them from rebuilding it in the same place after the horrible quake in 1906 and they are still expecting it to drop into the sea at any time. You'd think with us being a Judeo-Christian culture where pride is listed as one of the seven deadly sins, we'd pay attention to the warnings we've been given. But each successive generation seems to think that it's somehow exempted from the laws of nature, and we know more than our predecessors. Last December's tidal waves that swept through the Indian Ocean, this summer's exceptional monsoon rains that flooded Mumbai, and now Hurricane Katrina's impending destruction of New Orleans seem to indicate that we are out of warnings. I'm not willing to say there is a correlation between our abuse of the environment and these incidences emphatically: it could all be just a quirk of fate, or an off shoot of the shift in the El Nino, but that likelihood can't be ignored. There are things that as a species and a generation we should rightly take pride in. But we should not believe that we have sufficient talent and knowledge to be messing around with something as complicated as Nature. We have to learn how to work with Nature rather than try and force her to our will. That's a battle we always end up losing. There are a series of small islands off the coast of Indonesia, which are inhabited by the remnants of a native tribe. It is estimated that there are about sixty people living scattered throughout this atoll. Since the Indonesian government prohibits all contact, it is hard to get an accurate census. After the tsunami the people seemed to have vanished. It was feared, as they were fishers that they were all swept away. Finally during a fly over a helicopter spotted a single person down on a beach. It turned out that two weeks before the disaster they had known it was coming by the signs and indications they read in the water. They evacuated their villages and moved up into the hills to wait out the storm. These people's ancestors had seen these storms before, and they've held on to the knowledge of how to predict them and what to do in case of them. Their housing is designed to be rebuilt easily so material damage was limited. They suffered no casualties. cheers gypsyman


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