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DANA D. KELLEY: Mother Nature's dominion

by Dana D. Kelley | October 19, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Humankind has lofty cerebral capabilities and mechanical abilities to manufacture machines and devise devices that are amazing in their power and complexity.

Still, we are also lowly organisms of nature. And if we forget the magnitude of forces at her disposal, Mother Nature can harshly remind us who holds dominion.

Though our consciousness may elevate our perception, we remain minuscule against the earth's physical framework.

Nature is both part of us and separate from us, which contributes to its metaphorical proclivity in our prose. Whether the subject is philosophical, psychological, religious, amorous, or political, we analogize natural disasters.

"We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake," Frederick Douglass famously said at his Independence Day speech in 1852. Those events produce irresistible change, which he held as the only hope against seemingly immovable social fortifications.

But while natural disasters have always been with us, we have never before been able to "see" them so quickly and with such clarity.

I've never been to Mexico Beach, which is just east of Panama City in the Florida panhandle. It made national headlines as one of the worst-hit areas when Hurricane Michael made landfall on Oct. 10. Ironically, in our last trip to the Scenic Highway 30A area I had looked at the little beachside town of a thousand souls as a possible side trip.

Before and after photos often appear in the weeks following major disasters, but within mere days there were such images of Mexico Beach available on online news outlets.

We've become numb to the true meaning of words like obliteration, annihilation, devastation; the hurricane aftermath photos gave them new meaning and context. Sitting anywhere in the country with an Internet device and connection, anyone can instantly bear visual witness to destruction that, in earlier times, we would only have read about.

It's a tribute to our improved meteorological prognostication that a Category 4 hurricane slamming into a populated shoreline and spreading tropical storm-force winds across a 300-mile inland span only claimed 33 lives (as of this writing).

Damage in dollars is something else, of course, and estimates have already exceeded the $4.5 billion threshold. As many as 1 million people wound up being without power, officials reported.

Bad as Michael was, its lethality paled compared to the Indonesian natural disaster two weeks earlier, whose death toll stands at 2,000 and still counting. A 7.5-Richter scale earthquake produced a tsunami that sent a 20-foot wave crashing into Palu and other cities.

It's hard to imagine the force of such a wall of water; watching it happen on cell-phone video footage, and hearing panicked cries of fear, made me shudder at the inadequacy of imagination.

Perhaps you have never heard of "liquefaction." It's one of those ominous yet scientific-sounding words that one might expect to find lurking in a lesser known sci-fi story. Tragically, it is no fiction, and its truth and experience are more horrifying than alien invasion flicks.

Liquefaction is a geological process by which the soil structure collapses. It's a seismic condition in which terra firma essentially becomes liquid, resulting in a quicksand-like "land tsunami" (as Indonesian witnesses described it) that swallows up entire homes, blocks, neighborhoods.

A Sept. 28 time-lapse satellite photo of Palu showcases the devastation in motion. It begins by showing a still image of neat rows of roofs in a small town, with streets forming a perpendicular grid. As the time-lapse motion starts, the straight lines of streets begin to bend, and sections of roofs start to slide, as if water were being slowly poured over a painted image of the town, smearing the image's structure and colors. Huge swaths of little roofs disappear, swallowed up and replaced by a murky brown mass.

The bird's-eye view is surreal and sterile--the viewer is far removed in both space and time from the mass and magnitude of what's actually happening. On the ground, survivors spoke of the "mud" rolling like ocean waves, with homes shifting and sliding as much as 700 meters (nearly a half-mile).

These events epitomize a just-released United Nations report on economic losses suffered in natural disasters from 1998-2017: The most deadly events are earthquakes, the most destructive economically are storms, and those affecting the most people are floods.

All told, the summary numbers of Mother Nature's havoc the past 20 years are staggering.

A total of 7,255 disasters were catalogued in nine different classifications that killed 1.3 million people: floods, storms, earthquakes, extreme temperatures, landslides, droughts, wildfires, volcanic activities and dry land mass movement.

More than 4.4 billion people were directly affected: injured, homeless, displaced or in need of emergency assistance. The total economic loss was calculated to be $2.9 trillion, of which the U.S. share was $945 billion (due to our high assets value).

In times of disasters, nature awes and intimidates us, but at the same time inspires and lifts us.

We always can hope that our enhanced ability for tragedy awareness and empathy might percolate up as one of those majority things that do indeed unite, rather than divide, us.

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Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 10/19/2018

Print Headline: Mother Nature's dominion

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