An earthquake? A hurricane? Someone out there is sending us a message!
Two questions come to mind: Who is sending the message? And what is the message?
The most popular suspect as the perpetrator of last week’s East Coast earthquake and the East Coast Hurricane Irene that followed it is God. As the Almighty, the All-powerful, and the All-knowing, it makes sense that He’s the one who commands sufficient tera-joule level power resources and Cray-Computer-on-Steroids targeting finesse. Oh, I suppose humanity might whip up a good bit of power with a whole bunch of nukes, but tuning a large explosion into causing an earthquake far beneath the Earth’s surface or sparking an Atlantic hurricane seems beyond the current level of human science.
The hurricane missed our mountains, but it did play havoc with one of my favorite places, North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Whoever was directing the storm caused it to punch through the North-South Highway and, in places, the storm punched the ocean clean through the narrow barrier islands. To be anthropocentric about it, you have to think that the message associated with that must be pretty drastic.
The earthquake did catch the mountains, but only shook already-loose bricks or stones off of buildings. I was in the middle of jury trial in Clarksburg, and the courthouse suddenly began shaking. There was a “What’s that?” moment, and the judge sent the marshals to see what was going on. Under the circumstances, a structural engineer would’ve been a better choice, but none were handy. In any event, we went ahead with the trial, because it was just nothing to freak about. I did – and I do – marvel at the amount of energy it takes to shake a steel-stone-concrete building 200 miles from the epicenter. That, together with the fact that there was no loss of life or injury, strongly supports the God hypothesis. (God is all-loving, remember?)
Of course, everybody with an agenda and a personal hotline to the Cosmic Seat of Power announced that God was sending a message (and in some instances, a punishment) and they very kindly interpreted the message for those of us not tied into the Good-Ol’-Deity system.
A notable whack-job rabbi in New York slobbered all over himself as he ranted that this earthquake very clearly was a message that by permitting gay marriage (or, for that matter, gay anything), we were exposing ourselves to tectonic terror which would terminate our time on Terra.
We can always count on the wacky Westboro Baptist Church to give us the low down on God’s private thoughts. Moreover, when they do so they grin and chuckle and wring their hands with a good deal of malicious glee about the Lord’s no-nonsense approach to smiting the wicked. Hurricane Irene, to the Westboro sprites, was a very overt signal that the Lord God of Hosts is very annoyed about gay people.
One thought I have about Westboro, however, is that they may be misreading the extremity of the so-called punishment which is being inflicted. A hurricane? Really that’s a lot of rain and a lot of wind. The death toll was in double digits and property damage was in the mere single billions. Compared to some of the other remedies used by the Ultimate Magistrate, a worldwide flood, drowning armies in the Red Sea, plagues of locusts, frogs and so forth, this level of a hurricane seems rather weak tea in tepid water.
Pat Robertson, notable for his interpretation of God’s message about the vastly more severe earthquake in Haiti, got an entirely different message this time. Far be it from me to say that any of these holy receivers are wrong, perhaps God is just multitasking. To Robertson, the earthquake was a clear sign of the Second Coming of Christ. Even if you took the Book of Revelations completely at face value (sorry, that’s a bit of a stretch for me), I can’t make that connection. Of course, I’m reading it in English rather than the original Greek so I could be wrong. If I see Heaven opened and behold a White Host, boy am I going to come around to orthodoxy quickly.
One of the most notable interpretations of the disasters came from presidential candidate Michele Bachmann:
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."
Later, a campaign spokesman observed: "Obviously she was saying it in jest.”
Hats off to Rep. Bachmann. I think about 50% of her political opinions are pretty strange, but she has a really dark sense of humor and my book that’s a big positive. And let me say that her statement was absolutely brilliant sarcasm, sarcasm of the highest order. When your listeners aren’t quite sure whether you’re serious, you are so subtle, so nuanced, that you truly get the blue ribbon. (Now I know some of the Representative’s political enemies will say “Of course she was serious, and her campaign is just covering.” Well, how the hell do they know?)
Glenn Beck also interpreted these events as the work of God. The message he perceives, however, is a good bit more practical than the others. Beck is a convert to Mormonism. Among the important teachings of Mormonism is the encouragement of preparing for long-term self-sufficiency, including having an adequate stockpile of supplies to live without grocery stores, etc., for several months. That was the message Beck received, that the Lord God was telling us that bad things can happen and we need to be prepared for them.
Nobody is really saying that Obama caused either the earthquake or hurricane. Yet. I have to say, people accuse him of some of the weirdest stuff. This week I received a mass e-mail from a nutty website which promised to “Expose Obama’s plot to destroy the Constitution.” Goodness, I hope he doesn’t have such a plot.
However, the President took little bit of ownership, at least in the hurricane. In a speech on the White House lawn on Sunday evening, President O reminded the country that the hurricane was still a dangerous storm, that the federal government cares and would do all it could, blah, blah, blah. Mostly, it was paternalistic nonsense, and unnecessary blather.
Representative Ron Paul who, God willing, will never be the bride, has called for the dissolution of FEMA. He’s just wrong. FEMA, as the “point of the spear” of the Federal government does have an important role in emergency management. If we start with the presumption that we will respond to citizens who have catastrophic losses with something other than “too bad, so sad,” true disasters will exceed local resources and Federal resources will be required. The Feds provide money and provide supplies. When local control becomes impossible or ineffective, FEMA or other Federal agencies can provide leadership and management. But that is not the preferred model. The preferred approach remains one of local or state-level management.
One of the best things that FEMA does is train local managers to deal with disasters. FEMA trains people in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) which is a systematic and rational way to handle the demands of the mass of issues in a disaster. By the way, much of NIMS is available for study by anyone online at the FEMA website. The people who developed NIMS have the most important qualification of all: They all have ridden in vehicles with flashing lights to real emergencies.
Bad things happen. Sometimes they are ordinary things (rain, wind) in massive doses. These days, areas which are going to be pounded by a hurricane have 24 or 48 hours’ notice. The biggest urgent decision to be made by emergency managers is what areas to evacuate and when to do it. I can argue mandatory evacuation either way. If you’re dumb enough to stay for a hurricane, screw it, take your own chances. On the other hand, if by staying, you expose innocents (family) or rescuers to danger, you’re going beyond your personal rights. Evacuation prevents a great majority of what would otherwise be the loss of life due to a hurricane.
I am sure that there are a lot of county emergency service directors who are “wargaming” earthquake scenarios in Eastern United States this week. The Eastern earthquake provided a much better lesson than the Eastern hurricane. With a hurricane, you have warning. With an earthquake, within a span of 5 minutes you can go from normal life to near-complete destruction of infrastructure as well as loss of life and mass casualties, all over a wide area. As it is, the little earthquake last week reminded us that things can go to hell right quick.
It also reminded us the big dog of earthquakes, unreinforced masonry construction. The national Cathedral in Washington suffered some millions of dollars of damage. The Washington Monument was cracked. Around here, a chimney collapsed on the Barbour County Courthouse. The common theme? Stones or brick stacked on top of each other: Unreinforced masonry.
I do wonder that we’re not very good about learning lessons. Putting New Orleans where it was in the beginning wasn’t a fantastic idea, what with it being right by the Gulf of Mexico and partially below sea level. Massively rebuilding it in the same place is another head-scratcher. I’m sure that they will rebuild the National Cathedral with stacked stone, and that when the beaches and bridges are put back on the Outer Banks, people will build those beautiful coastal homes right up next to the ocean.
Of all of God’s interpreters, Beck gets closest to reality. That’s because he gives at least a partial solution, and rational reasoning. No matter what you think about this notion that it was the hand of God at work, the idea self-reliance and neighborhood reliance is long overdue for a resurgence. In North America, we have developed very effective response systems to handle most emergencies in a reasonably efficient fashion. One definition of “disaster,” however, is an event of such magnitude that it overwhelms local and regional response resources. When that happens, “they” may not be coming for a long time and it’s up to “us” to suck it up and take responsibility.