No, it’s not the Apocalypse. That happened last November. This is just weather.
Just weather. And the earth. How quaint.
Three hurricanes, and a major earthquake that very few people outside of Mexico are paying attention to, are taking their physical and psychic toll on a country that does not need any more bad news. Add in a cleanup that will be expensive, daunting and political, and you’ll see more partisan bickering in addition to the usual American disaster response which will include astounding stories of bravery, generosity, and poignancy.
Coming on the heels of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the earthly events of the past few weeks are instructive and worthy of reflection. For as a much as we consider ourselves as the vanguard of technology, knowledge, wealth, sophistication and freedom, we need to remind ourselves that nature ultimately holds us to account. There’s just no way to stop a hurricane or to predict an earthquake in time to safely evacuate residents. We are really at the mercy of our own limitations and our uncanny hubris when it comes to assessing risk. Just as we overestimated our safety 16 years ago, and unconscionably put the New York disaster assessment agency in the World Trade Center, so have Houston and, I’m reasonably certain we will find out, South Florida, will find that they were unprepared for events that stretched the vocabulary of every weatherista in the media.
And the political lessons? Please. Just ask anybody in New Jersey who remembers the Texas Congressional delegation’s incomprehensible opposition to federal relief for Superstorm Sandy in 2012, how they view the Ted Cruz FEMA telethon and screechy request for funds to rebuild, and they’ll tell you quite a story. Just don’t stand too close. And I hope you’re not offended by salty language. There’s also more money to be spent on Florida, and in the end I expect that both states will get what they need.
What these storms ultimately should tell us is that we are pretty good at reacting to disasters (right, Brownie?), but we are terrible at planning, execution, building codes and, yes, infrastructure. We simply cannot continue this way. Other countries, such as the European low countries and Great Britain, have made adjustments and not simply rebuilt up the affected areas. Dunes on the New Jersey shore will help, but building more houses on stilts will just set up homes as field goal attempts the next time we are pummeled with a 100-year storm that comes 95 years too soon.
The last piece to all of this is how we react, long-term, to these challenges, and the main component is the effect our activity is having on our atmosphere. Climate change is real. It is being influenced by choices and actions that humans have made since the industrial age. You can’t believe in meteorology and astronomy and physics, but deny the atmospheric chemistry that is making the earth warmer and holding more moisture. It’s time that we realized that we need to make adjustments and to not put people in danger that is avoidable.
That will require leadership that, at present, we just don’t have.