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ELCA World Hunger

Smitten and trying to respond

“He smote the bank!” cackles Jean Stapleton, after John Travolta, as the archangel Michael, casually unleashes a bolt of lightning in the movie “Michael.”

Earthquakes, oil spills, floods, droughts—there’s a lot of smiting going on, and a lot of preparing for it, not with sackcloth and ashes but catastrophe scenarios and emergency response plans and drills.

I discovered this last week at a talk on the Great Storm of 1861-1862—the one that turned California’s Central Valley into a 300-mile long puddle; the one that forced the California state government to move to San Francisco; the one that damaged 7/8ths of all housing and destroyed one out of every eight homes and a third of all taxable property in California.

Sacramento in 1862

This fascinating, safely distant story of a smitten state was followed by an anxiety-generating winter storm scenario that the U.S. Geological Survey is creating. The hypothetical date of this “extreme precipitation event” is January 2011; May 2011 is when the agencies and emergency managers and responders will hold their practice drill. Based on the understanding that California has a “mega storm” every 300 years (and destructive as it was, 1861-62 wasn’t a mega storm), these experts are:

…examining the possibility, cost, and consequences of floods, landslides, coastal erosion and inundation; debris flows; biologic impacts; physical damage such as property loss from wind, flood, and landslide; and lifeline impacts such as bridge scour [when the sand and rocks around a bridge give way, leading to collapse], road closures, and levee failures. Consideration is given to the disruption of water supply and the impacts on ground-water pumping, seawater intrusion and water supply degradation. The scenario is depicting the economic consequences of these damages in terms of repair costs and business interruption, public-health implications, and emergency response.

The USGS guy painted the picture starkly and dramatically. When he finished, the room was silent. Finally the emcee stood to thank the speakers and said, a little shakily, “well, I guess it’s time we all move to the foothills.” We took home delightful reading: “The ShakeOut Earthquake Scenario,” which modeled the aftereffects of a hypothetical 7.8 earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault as the morning rush hour was ending. That Southern California earthquake drill, involving 5000 emergency responders and 5 million citizens, has already taken place. (Watch this USGS video on the earthquake scenario and  the ARkStorm winter storm project, and check out the Old Testament imagery.)

Appalled and intrigued, I went to the Internet, and discovered I could learn how a New Madrid mega-earthquake would affect the Midwest, where almost no anti-seismic measures are in place. Briefly, five to eight states would be affected; local mutual aid would not work; bridges over the Mississippi could be uncrossable for several hundred miles, for years; transmission of natural gas, oil, and electricity to much of the east coast would be affected for many months, along with the supply of wheat and grains to other parts of the world; there would be significant out-migration. (Question for discussion in this FEMA exercise: what could or would emergency managers in one local jurisdiction like Memphis do when faced with such a catastrophe?)

Or I could choose a scenario for a slow-developing catastrophe like Lake Mead going dry, leaving 22 million people in three states without water. (Discussion question: How can emergency managers in Las Vegas prepare to respond?)

Or I could browse peak gas scenarios, 2012 Armageddon scenarios, global warming scenarios, armchair quarterback analyses of the Black Plague, the Irish Potato Famine, the 1917 Influenza Pandemic, Hurricane Katrina, or Limits to Growth, the 1972 scenario published by the Club of Rome that projected nine different outcomes based on the variables of world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. Only one of those nine is hopeful; the others are so dire, a catastrophe response plan would be pointless.  Recent studies confirm (says Wikipedia) that current “changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book’s predictions of economic and societal collapse in the 21st century.”

Things are not looking good.

It’s tempting to call my efforts to live a sustainable life foolish. To quit trying to support alternative systems and behavior. To chuck  my bicycle for a really big car. But I think I’ll stay the course.

Why? For starters, imagining catastrophe is the first step in trying to mitigate it. The literature of catastrophe helps us grasp the scope of what we face, and discern what part of it is in our control. The silver lining to spending a sunny  afternoon imagining my hometown underwater was learning just how many people are collaborating on the response.

Second, letting go of the idea that everything is in our control is just plain healthy. No amount of clean living and recycling can prevent an earthquake!

Third, there is power in individual and collective action. Martin Luther thought so, too. Asked what he would do if the world were to end tomorrow, he said, “Plant an apple tree today.”

Smiting happens. But faith kicks in where reason ends. I’m voting for faith, for the apple tree, for the bicycle helmet. And I’m  spending tomorrow curled up with “A Guide to Emergency Preparedness for Sacramento County.”

Anne Basye,  Sustaining Simplicity