Archived Story

Location plays big factor in disaster effect

Published 9:10am Friday, May 31, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

For years the canvas bag hung on a doorknob in my room, usually on the closet door, but sometimes on the front door if I was especially anxious. The bag was blue, with Japanese words printed on it in black ink. Inside it were whatever I considered my treasures of the moment: Legos, interesting rocks, die-cast Matchbox cars, books, toy soldiers.

The bag was a holdover from years spent living in Japan as a child, where earthquakes were a common experience. My mother’s practice during these frequent occurrences, especially during the stronger ones, was to rush us all out of the house in case the ceiling caved in.

It never did. But the panicked rushing out into the darkness (I can only remember the night-time earthquakes for some reason) must have had an effect, because that’s when I took possession of the bag — it had originally housed a bottle of sake — and started hanging it on the doorknob, in easy reach if I had to rush out of the house at night.

Through many moves after leaving Japan that bag hung from a series of doorknobs. It wasn’t until middle school that it finally went into the closet; the need to keep treasures portable, in a canvas bag, was no longer as urgent. Even there, though, it continued to hold a rotating collection of my most precious treasures of the moment.

Most of the time, in most places on our planet, what we puny humans call “natural disasters” follow an all-too-familiar pattern. They arrive violently and unexpectedly; no matter how much we plan, we are rarely ready when they occur. They often involve darkness and danger, and they can leave emotional residue behind — like my obsession with the old sake bag and its contents. They deliver death and destruction in ways that are completely impersonal, snatching babies out of parents’ arms and drowning those who survived cancer.

When the really big ones happen — 7-magnitude earthquakes (sometimes followed by a towering tsunami), Category 4 hurricanes, or F5 tornadoes — these terrible experiences are life-changing. They affect us as individuals, privately and internally, but also communally, as members of families, residents of towns or citizens of nations. They can be powerful enough to eliminate entire communities: people, animals, trees, buildings … everything.

Though we don’t always talk about it right away, money is part of natural disasters, as well as this: location, location, location. Where humans live plays a huge role in how much devastation results to the human landscape, and how long that landscape remains devastated. A hurricane or tornado in a community (or region) without warning systems or evacuation plans brings with it much more destruction and death than in a community that had early warning systems in place, and infrastructure that first allows people to escape and then makes relief and rescue efforts afterward easier.

Because of location and economics, there is a disparity in disaster aftermath that is easily measured. Managua, Nicaragua, still has not completely recovered from a 1979 earthquake that killed thousands. Visitors to San Francisco or Tokyo would be hard-pressed to find any visual evidence of the many powerful earthquakes in those cities, unless that evidence has been intentionally preserved.

Driving on Freeborn County Road 46 west of Albert Lea, the only evidence of a tornado I see is the absence of mature trees and several new homes. Those who visit New Orleans and other areas in the Mississippi River Delta don’t have to travel very far from their fancy hotels to find evidence of the disasters that strike those places on a regular basis.

What will Moore, Okla., look like two years from now? Will it be rebuilt? Yes, and I doubt there will be much an outsider would recognize as tornado aftermath, at least on the surface. Rebuilding in a place struck so often by massive tornadoes might not be especially wise, but the money will be there for those who decide to do it.

In the end it is their decision to stay and rebuild. And it’s not as if there is anywhere that is completely safe anyway. When it comes to disasters, we either survive and rebuild together or we atrophy and decline together. The response to disasters by individuals and by governments demonstrate our humanity, or our lack of it.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.