What exactly is a natural disaster?
The intersection of 'the average' and 'the extraordinary’.
I was thinking the other day about our society’s fascination with polls and numbers. We love to use numbers and averages to forecast and predict things like public opinion and natural events. I think the problem with this practice is that it conditions us to expect events and people to be average.
And I frequently see the results of this conditioning when I observe our society’s expectations and attitudes towards the weather.
Often, we expect, forecast and plan for averages. And then we act surprised or even shocked when conditions are extraordinary.
I think we forget that the Creator of our world is anything but average. He takes pride in the extraordinary, whether that be extraordinary weather to display his power or extraordinary people to honor and glorify his name.
In my experience, the longer I follow Jesus and the longer I live in his creation, the more conditioned I have become to expect the extraordinary.
It seems that nearly every week we hear about a powerful weather related event occurring somewhere in our world. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, torrential rains, heavy snow falls, drought and soaring or freezing temperatures. This happens with such frequency that we even have adopted terms into our language to refer to such events: "Natural disasters", "Acts of God" and "Mother Nature's fury" just to name a few.
Wikipedia defines a natural disaster as "the effect of a natural hazard (e.g., flood, tornado, hurricane, volcanic eruption, earthquake, heat wave, or landslide). It leads to financial, environmental or human losses."
Since moving to the Navajo reservation over 7 years ago, I have had to learn to adapt to living in an environment where my daily schedule and, at times, even my well being is affected by the weather (see my article, 'Paved Roads’, to read more of my reflections on this). This has challenged me to intentionally adopt a more humble attitude regarding weather, which is to not complain about it. I understand that I live in the high desert, so I do not complain about the arid conditions. And because our land is perpetually dry, I intentionally try to be thankful for the moisture we receive, regardless of when it comes or what form it comes in.
One of the more recent weather related events that we have heard about on a national level was the strong Santa Ana winds that blew through Southern California a few weeks ago. I went to college in Southern California and have many family and friends who live there, so I tend to pay close attention to the news coming from that region. One of the biggest problems reported from the recent Santa Ana winds was the number of large trees that fell down, blocking roads, crushing houses and cars and knocking down power lines.
I did some reading about these winds and came across this quote in a story from the LA times:
"L.A. trees don't have deep roots. The urban forest is artificial and is primarily watered by lawn sprinklers," Patzert said. "So what keeps our urban forest alive is people watering their lawns, which are not natural, so you don't have deep root systems. So our trees are very vulnerable to Santa Ana events."
This same article also referred to these strong Santa Ana winds (in some places up to 100 MPH) as a once in a decade type of event.
I also saw and heard of several interviews with longtime residents of Southern California who stated that they had NEVER seen winds like these in that region before. (Personally, I think it would be interesting to ask some of the Native American tribes indigenous to those lands about the frequency and history of such winds, but that thought is for another blog post.) :-)
I was in the Netherlands when Hurricane Katrina hit the Southern coast of the United States back in the fall of 2005. A few days prior to that event my family and I were touring some of the dykes there: huge, massive structures holding back the sea and very impressive to look at. I remember asking my friends, who lived in that country, how it felt to reside in a place where, if nature just corrected itself and did what it was supposed to do, a good portion of the country would be destroyed and underwater? Not necessarily a questions one wants to think about regarding their 'home' on a regular basis.
But then it was eerie to watch that fear become realized when Katrina hit the United States a couple days later.
I think that as our world grows more populous and our understanding of science becomes more advanced, our efforts to control and manipulate our environments in unnatural ways will become more pronounced. Whether that is the planting urban forests, farming in the desert, building cities where there is no water or constructing our civilizations beneath levees and dykes built to hold back the seas. But I think over time these unnatural manipulations, no matter how well constructed, will be exposed as vulnerable and inferior to the strength and beauty of creation. And because of our fascination with 'the average,' their existence will be threatened, not just by cataclysmic weather events, but even by unusual or infrequent weather events.
So what am I saying?
To be honest, I'm not too sure.
Do we stop planting and watering tress in Los Angeles? Of course not.
Do we move the entire population of municipalities such as Phoenix AZ, Las Vegas NV and New
Orleans LA to environments more conducive to human life? No, I don't think so.
I guess I just want us, as people, to take a more humble attitude and not act so surprised or shocked when our 'average' environmental manipulations meet the Creator’s extraordinary weather.
I don't want us to be too quick to blame God or claim to be victims of 'natural disasters' or 'Mother Nature’s fury' when technically the problem is we are living in ways or in places that are not natural habitats for our existence. I'm not saying we don't call these events disasters, for when there is wide-spread human suffering, pain or loss of life that is a disaster.
I'm just saying that I want our society to be humble enough to accept some of the blame and responsibility ourselves when this damage and loss occurs.
I want us to have a deep humility and understanding that nature is NOT average, it is extraordinary.
(This article was originally published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.)