1.a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair; calamity; disaster:stunned by the tragedy of so many deaths.
2.a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically involving a great person destined to experience downfall or utter destruction, as through a character flaw or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or an unyielding society.
3.the branch of the drama that is concerned with this form of composition.
In today’s world, social media obsess over a small handful of entertainment, athletic, political, and business celebrities. It’s easy and tempting for the remaining seven billion of us to emulate, follow, and live vicariously through these few – breathlessly following ups and downs of the run-up (?) to a North Korean- U.S. summit, Meghan’s marriage to Harry, LeBron’s 50+ points Friday night, Roseanne’s latest tweet. We lose sight of reality – that we are, each of us, intended to be the heroes and heroines of our own lives.
What’s more, we’re not actors in some low-key sitcom, but rather a great drama – the challenge of living on the generous, dangerous, fragile real world.
Today’s focus is on the dangerous bit, and how we’re all involved. To see this, we need only to consider the news in recent days from…
Puerto Rico. The 64 deaths estimated last year from Hurricane Maria? That figure, we were told this past week, doesn’t even come close. Harvard public health experts analyzed excess deaths (over statistical normal) resulting over time since, from multiple stressors – interruption of vital medications; loss of shelter; the electrical power needed to run health equipment and basic air conditioning; contaminated water supplies; the mental anguish from family injuries, property and job loss; and more. These analysts tell us the death toll to date lies between 800-8500, with the most likely figure something like 4600-4700. Remote regions of the island still lack power even as the next hurricane season has begun. Building construction and the repaired electrical infrastructure are no more resilient than before – if anything, less so. Puerto Ricans face repetitions of this tragedy down the road.
Houston, TX. On May 22, the Washington Post reported that Houstonians have begun rebuilding – in the flood plain. The city, the developers, and those who buy these homes are thereby setting into motion future loss and pain. And don’t think those hidden deaths in Puerto Rico aren’t mirrored here. The statistics may not have surfaced yet – they wouldn’t be so dire – but the stress of the Hurricane Harvey has undoubtedly taken a toll – on the ill, the elderly, the very youngest, the poor, anyone who had only been scratching by in prior months.
Ellicott City, MD. A week ago, the second “1000-year” flood in two years inundated this town, just as businesses and townspeople were beginning to recover from the 2016 flash flood. A wetter-than-normal month, saturating the soil, set the stage for flooding from ten inches of rain. But the town is situated in a stream channel. The canyon that provides much of the charm has flooded fifteen times since the 1700’s. Even so, another Washington Post writer pointed out:
there is no question that the downtown historic district will be rebuilt. The more than 200-year-old enclave is Howard County’s cultural heart, its highest-profile attraction and a big economic generator. But as the mud and debris get cleared, some locals acknowledge that it may be time to rethink some of the zone’s most flood-vulnerable spots.
Asheville, NC. Even as workers were digging out Ellicott City, a similar flooding event ravaged this Appalachian tourist town, hit by a comparable flood in 2004.
Berkeley, CA. This university community was badly damaged by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. But that was a rumble on the fault next door, the San Andreas. The Hayward fault runs right through town and the Berkeley campus; seismologists currently indicate it’s the Hayward fault that’s more likely to trigger the next big upheaval in the Bay area. Estimates suggest a 70% probability over the next 30 years. This may seem like a long time. Factor in uncertainty, and the day of reckoning might be still further out. But that uncertainty cuts both ways. Only one thing is sure. Each day brings us 24 hours closer to the inevitable tragedy, and each day’s construction across the Berkeley-Oakland area increases the scope of the resulting loss.
Leilani Estates, Hawaii. Lava flows continue to destroy this idyllic community, with no clear end in sight. Pele, the fire goddess, the “goddess who devours the earth” has been angry before and will be again. If the past is prologue to the present, she’ll find even more construction, people, and economic activity in harm’s way the next time around.
Takeaways from these six tragedies – whether just suffered, still underway, or in the future, but nearing in the future.
First– our planet is inherently dangerous. No place is safe. All seven billion of us are hurtling through space on what is essentially a top-down convertible – a convertible convulsively shaking and vulnerable to flooding in the passenger compartment. Our six communities preoccupy minds today. But the fact is, another 6000 U.S. towns, counties, and cities are writing their own disaster narratives. Each and every day, each of these dramas is one day closer to denouement.
Our resources are limited. We can’t afford to eliminate disaster risk; we don’t control the vehicle or the route. All that contributes to the second part of the definition of tragedy – our efforts to survive confront “overpowering force.”
Second– while extremes are nature’s way of doing business, disasters are a human construct. We set disasters in motion through our choices and actions – historically, through where and how we have chosen to build – and more recently, through our impatience to reap immediate benefits from quickly installed, cheaply constructed, poorly sited infrastructure (versus taking the thought, time, and effort required to lay in place the more robust but also the more expensive sort that might better withstand the occasional extreme). The question is: can we learn from experience? After each disaster, can we relocate, rebuild more intelligently, otherwise adjust our behavior, rather than resign ourselves to repetitive (and often increasing) loss? Can we make life incrementally safer, secure happier hazard outcomes for our children and grandchildren? In principle, this looks doable. But as a species, perhaps we suffer from a fatal character flaw (tragedy’s primary contributor).
Third– disasters are personal. We can’t count on our political leaders, our entertainment and sports figures to surface these issues, let alone resolve them. J.J. Watt, a Houston-Texan defensive end, raised $37M for hurricane relief for his city last year; years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates Roberto Clemente died in a 1972 plane crash attempting to deliver earthquake relief aid to Nicaragua. Their efforts were noble, but isolated – and ultimately insufficient.
No, living on the real world works the other way around. Celebrities have to hope that you and I – the nameless – collaborate in large numbers locally and regionally to build community-level resilience – so that in years to come, “celebrity” will continue to be a thing. We all have to get involved. We’re not merely passengers on planet Earth.
We’re members of the crew.
Hi, Bill, I used to visit regularly, but somehow ceased – a name search shows that you cited me in a post in March 2013. So I’m pleased to see that your posts are as pertinent, astute and well-crafted as they were before my five-year hiatus. And that John Plodinec is still contributing.
Thanks, Michael! And by happy circumstance I was able to see John at this year’s Hazards Workshop in Broomfield Colorado just last week.