Friday, September 13, 2013

Disaster Preparedness

As I write, my home state of Colorado is suffering from record flooding after some places received more precipitation in a a few days than they normally see in an entire year. Family and friends are either dealing with the consequences, or waiting for conditions to potentially get worse.

The ground was already saturated by rain the day before the flooding began, which was coincidentally the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was taking a refresher class in first aid and CPR for my job in the middle of what would be the hardest-hit city, Boulder. At home I had several books dealing with disaster preparedness and backpacking that included much of the same information. While my training anticipated conditions and accidents where I would be working, my books were intended to inform my writing, provide guidance for hiking, and prepare for the disasters I knew were coming. The class was a pointed reminder of what some of those disasters might include.

Yesterday, I awoke to one of those disasters. Because I'm in the habit of checking news before leaving home, I discovered that Boulder was virtually impassable, and my wife couldn't get to work either. We sat at home, watching the disaster unfold on TV and the Internet. Our home was also under a steady stream of flood warnings and watches, but although water in our nearby storm drain got higher than we'd ever seen it, and a small lake briefly appeared over the grass outside our window, we had no problems.

Several superlatives were used to describe the event, and rightly so based on the area's history. Roads and bridges were washed out, entire towns were isolated by both water and lack of electricity. Debris caused water treatment plants to stop working. Low clouds, rain, and fog grounded helicopters that might have provided aid, rescue, and reconnaissance. People were urged not to travel unless it was absolutely necessary. Fortunately there were only a handful of known casualties, though the number is expected to go up when the waters recede and the full extent of the damage becomes known.

With the average world temperature increasing, the atmosphere will hold more water vapor before it becomes saturated and releases it, making events like this much more frequent, punctuating long periods of drought along with dust storms, tornadoes, and blizzards, while we suffer with more infectious pests who have been displaced by our meddling with their habitats. This is just the beginning of the hell we've triggered, and it already looks pretty bad.

As what we now consider as "disaster" gets more routine, it will become virtually impossible to cope, thus we must look for any ways to stop it, beginning with the reduction of our pillage and poisoning of the biosphere. The linkage between our behavior and the so-called "acts of god" we experience is not yet a visceral one, so it will be difficult to get enough people to take appropriate action in time to avert a self-sustaining death spiral. Although I've ceased to believe the myth of an omnipotent dispenser of evil (as well as good), and I more often feel responsible for my small part in making the catastrophe, it's still too easy to cave in to the status quo pursuit of keeping what I have and pursuing at least a little more. While I intellectually see the link and what to do about it, when it comes to action it's easier to focus on getting through the current emergency and how to preserve what I have when a similar or worse one hits.

Perhaps the most productive takeaway from this disaster for me is awareness of the need to address the question I just suggested: What will it take to viscerally make the link between our actions and the indirect consequences that can destroy us, such that we are adequately motivated to change what we're doing?

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