Lessons from Natural Disasters

Only a week from Tropical Storm Sandy and already the National Weather Service is indicating we are in for a Nor’ Easter this coming mid-week. I’m not complaining, we fared well in Western New England in the last storm. In our town top winds were in the 60 mph range, most of the vicinity lost power and phone, and there was some serious tree damage in some areas. The electricity and phones were back on for most within a day or two. Still, seeing the absolute devastation that the monster storm wreaked on the Mid-Atlantic states is absolutely sobering. To some degree we pay the price for inhabiting storm prone areas, but with super storms like Sandy even those who paid heed to past events were caught in the fury of this record low-pressure storm.

The barred owl is a proficient and unappologetic predator that survives with great skill and risk taking.

There is no accounting for loss of life and a life’s worth of earnings and assets. There is just nothing fair about it. And that’s something to be considered. Does fairness have anything to do with the equation of life? In the natural world, tragedy is an everyday fact. This is something humans have grown insulated from. Predators kill prey everyday. Each life lost is nutrition for those that utilize the food source. What may be tragic for those who are preyed upon may be good fortune for those successful predators. On any given day on this planet there is an earth quake, a tornado, a hurricane or typhoon, severe thunderstorms, and disastrous floods that maim, take life, and leaves someone or something in a state of shambles. It is simply a fact of life.

The human species has learned through many forms of technology to protect ourselves from many of these natural disasters. Many of us live under a roof, in an insulated house, where can drink fresh water and cook our food. We sleep in comfortable beds, eat wonderful meals, and enjoy light during the night time hours. We have defied nature to the best of our ability and done so for generations successfully. We are now, as a civilization, dependent on corporate provisions of electricity, fuel, food, and transportation. We seem to think we are independent but, in fact, rely on an economic system to give us the essentials of life. And when this economic system breaks down all hell breaks loose.

Partridgeberry acts as a ground cover that keeps the soil cool in the summer. This benefits countless critters in the soil that helps provide nutrients to the plant community. Their interdependence helps both to survive.

Our lives are so comfortable that we forget how powerless we really are. While natural disasters are common on this planet we just assume they will not happen to us. And when the system is broken by a hurricane, earth quake, tsunami, or whatever we seem stunned-like it is not an expected part of life. And because we live in these false bubbles we are, for all intents in purposes, unable to provide for ourselves in these rare times of tragedy. I was puzzled recently by events highlighted by Hurricane Sandy. There were people who were stranded for a couple of days and waiting to be rescued. There houses were surrounded by knee deep water and there automobiles inoperable. I was struck, not by those who are physically disabled and who simply cannot respond in a crisis such as this, but by the able bodied who couldn’t bear to walk away from their submerged homes in knee deep water. They waited for the National Guard and first responders to carry them away in large trucks with big wheels or, in some cases, motor boats.

As someone who makes a living, even in my advancing years, by sloshing around in knee deep water in boots as I march through one swamp after another, I understand that it is my familiarity with unknown water depths that makes it not quite so scary. Still, I wonder just how soft as a society we have become. Have we lost all of our survival instincts? Will we perish if there is no one to rescue us? There is not a question in my mind that I have the skills, will, and fortitude to survive almost any natural disaster as long as I am not seriously injured. And with the uncertain weather patterns that are ahead I feel fortunate that my wife and I have learned these skills through not only my many wilderness adventures but my general life style. We grow much of our own fuel. We cut wood for fuel. We lived for many years without electricity and understand how to get water, energy, and entertainment without a dependency on others. We are lucky. Luck as the result of sacrifice and lots of hard work, I suppose.

Some plant communities are isolated and nearly independent from the world around them and yet the survive within their own terms and limits.

And I wonder if its not time for the majority of our populace to begin understanding what real independence is. There are many skills that can be learned. And for our brothers and sisters that live in suburban and urban environments you can all learn, joyously, together. Growing food, getting water, distributing both food and water, harvesting energy, and learning the possibilities for alternative transportation can be an uplifting experience. The process of learning these skills in a community setting can be a real and valuable group learning experience. For example, many urban and suburban areas now have groups dedicated to food security. These are valuable groups that are planning increased independence. Building community while learning to be truly independent could be the experience of a life time. I’m thinking if people learn these skills prior to any earth shaking events than we will all be much better off. And if they are not needed, that’s OK, we can pass them on to our children. Perhaps they’ll have use for these skills at some juncture.

Don’t get me wrong. Last year when Irene ripped through interior New England and every road and mode of transportation was eradicated we were glad to get help from government. But in the face of all of the hell and fury left behind by the devastating floods, and long before any government agencies sent help our way, we were in the trenches working like beavers to correct the damage. Men and women on tractors, others with shovels in hand, began the arduous task of opening roads to allow safety vehicles to pass. Only a few years before our area was struck by the great ice storm of 2008. Tens of thousands of trees were broken off and laid on the ground. Miles of roads were covered with millions of board feet of timber crossed every which way not allowing any one to go one inch in any direction. Scores of miles of power lines and telephone lines lay underneath the millions of uncut cords of woods. I remember surveying the damage the next morning. My response was to get out my chainsaw, cut a path down our long, long driveway and then cut a car and a half wide path east on the road we live on. While my wife and I were working I could hear other chainsaws in the distance; others who were doing exactly the same thing. There was some comfort in knowing that. By the end of the day we had cleared 3/8ths of a mile of road to a spot where there was less damage and we could get out to help others. I remember how tired we were that night. My bones ached to the core. But I was proud at what we had done. And even though our youth is way, way back in the rear view mirror of life I knew that we demonstrated that we were still on top of our game. We were still survivors.

Lichen plant communities, the ultimate example of symbiosis, show how two organisms can be so intertwined that they act as one. The ultimate survival tool!

Quite frankly our unprepared culture scares the hell out of me. We need less shopping and more gardening. We need less golfing and more husbandry. And we all could use a lesson in entertaining ourselves rather than being entertained by others. And if the proverbial shit ever does hit the fan, a prepared urban and suburban culture, a prepared nation, will directly benefit all of us.

We’ll sleep better at night knowing that everyone is safe and happy in their own homes and communities. And if you need help, just ask, after we bail ourselves out we’ll be there to help you.

And we know that if you are ready, you’ll be there to help us too!

Even the porcupine, one of nature's best armored animals, must come out of a tree now and them to seek new territory and new food supplies.

Written for www.wildramblings.com in November of 2012.

  • Barb

    A timely post, Bill. We are unable to help ourselves because we fail to take responsibility for ourselves. My Mother always said, “There is no free lunch,” but as a society, we seem to have forgotten. We wait for the government to save us, and it has proven time and time again that it cannot.

  • shoreacres

    An absolutely on-target and splendid post. I think many of us are pondering the same issues. My post today was concerned with the same issues of dependence/independence, loss of skills and a growing unwillingness to even consider the realities of the natural world.

    I have special sympathy for the people of NYC and Jersey when it comes to “they should have known” criticism. Houston knows about hurricanes and prepares well – but we weren’t at all prepared for tropical storm Allison, which absolutely destroyed much of the city, including our vaunted Texas Medical Center. No one ever had imagined that a mere tropical storm could stall out and provide over two feet of rain – but it happened. When the infrastructure was repaired, adjustments were made, and the same will happen on the East coast. But all of that only proves the point – when it comes to nature, we can learn to cope, but we’ll never control.

    Part of the problem (it seems to me) is that we are being trained for dependence. Over and over during hurricane season, people in Houston are told, “When officials tell you to evacuate, then go.” Excuse me? Why should I depend on the government to tell me when to leave? I can watch the weather, prepare my house and leave when I feel it’s right. And every June 1, I fill out the supplies, in case I decide to stay: water, food, fuel, lanterns, cash, medications, pet supplies and so on.

    I love your chainsaw story. The day after Ike roared through, I drove from Tyler, Texas to Nacogdoches. The entire road was clear, with neatly stacked piles of cut wood here and there. Because the neighbors had cleared the highway, the power trucks that began coming in from Oklahoma and North Texas could move – it was a wonderful experience.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Certainly you and I are, once again, on the same page, Although I would not call it a conspiracy, I do believe that business and our government are so eager to both get our money and please the people, that we have been “trained” to become dependent on resources provided by others. This is a gigantic mistake, repeat, gigantic mistake! The human species must follow the rest of the natural order and NEVER lose its ability to respond to disaster on an individual basis. Think, survival of the fittest! If you are not prepared and rely on others, in the end, you won’t survive. Please, please, everyone, wake up and start getting skills that will help you and your FAMILY to survive what mother nature has to offer. If you do, you will likely come out on the plus side. If you don’t your chances may not be too good.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Taking responsibility for our actions and our reactions is the key Barb! And, yes, there is no free lunch. Each and every one of us is responsible to learn the key elements to survival. And, better, if you join with others it will not only build community by enhance your chances if a disastrous event ever occurs.

    Don’t get me wrong. I hope none of you ever experience a severe natural disaster. But if you do, or if your children do, and you are ready (or your children are ready) you will be much more likely to wade through the event with confidence and success.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    An excellent post, Bill and so sorely needed. People need to wake up. Your “middle” sentence is the key: “And I wonder if it’s not time for the majority of our populace to begin understanding what real independence is.” It is very much time. There are far too many people with their heads in the sand, still denying what is breathing down our collective necks. They will continue in their delusions, believing the government will be here to make it all better. It’s an infantile grasping of the severity of the situation we are facing. We are not alarmists. We are aware and everybody better get a whole not more so.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yes, I agree, it is not really about being an alarmist, but helping people to understand that they must take responsibility for their own situation. I am not a closet dooms day fanatic, but I do think that we all need to attain the skills to make decisions and put into action those decisions about life altering events. Some of this can be done in our communities, some of it we have to think about and learn on our own. And if nothing happens, we still have skills that are important in all walks of life!

  • Emily B

    I just knew you’d write something about Sandy. I really enjoyed this post, Bill, because it felt like you were just talking to me, stringing out your thoughts, telling it like it is. And how true, those things that we need: more gardening and less shopping, etc. How can we expect fairness if we don’t think about the level of fairness that we are holding out to our neighbors and the earth? To the very essence of our human selves? Thought-provoking ideas here, Bill. Thank you for sharing them.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I am predictable aren’t I? As the world has modernized, particularly since the electronic age, I believe people are less in touch with their survival instincts. Partially because they feel that nothing will happen in their quiet lives and partially because they believe if something does happen that someone else will take care of it. Both thought processes should be classified as risky behavior. It is more and more likely that something will happen and it is more and more likely that all of us are going to, at least in part, be responsible for taking action. True, it is no longer likely for most people that you will be eaten by a large predator, but it is also true that due to the sheer gravity of our burgeoning population on this planet, climate change, and many other factors that something catastrophic should happen. Those that are ready hold a good chance of survival. Those that are not will have a very difficult time.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    Interesting post, I begin to believe that the great wheel has spun, I think we actually spun it and we will have to get used to the changes that are coming. But coping with them is going to take some doing and it is not just the 3rd world that will continue to have weather related problems as it has been ( or we liked to believe ) in the past.


  • Wild_Bill

    I think you may be correct on both counts Guy, we spun the wheel and there will be no favoritism as to where climate change impacts will take place. That’s not to say that all places will be impacted as severely, certainly coastal areas will take a continued pounding if climate change continues to effect our weather patterns.

  • Montucky

    Throughout the episode with Sandy I have had many of the same thoughts. My heart went out to those who were helpless in the cities. What a sobering thought that many were (and still are) almost entirely dependent on mechanized/energy dependent infrastructure for even their most basic needs. I wish I could share your optimism that there is potential that their situations and those of city dwellers everywhere can be addressed, but it seems that the problem is only getting worse as the population continues to shift toward the cities.

    As I reviewed the election results in this region it was very clear to see that the election results here were governed almost entirely by the most populated areas where dependence on government, technology and infrastructure continues to increase. Politics being what it is, the emphasis is almost entirely on supporting those areas and then how in the world will the shift away from that kind of dependence ever be made?

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    The first step would be to limit Corporate America’s stranglehold on Congress. There are hundreds of lobbyists for each Congressperson and Senator, Corporations were declared people by the Supreme Court therefore allowing them to buy elections, and the average voter cannot even get a Representative’s attention unless its election time. People of all regions should learn to be independent of government simply because they cannot help us in really major catastrophic circumstances. If each one of us took personal responsibility for our own safety whether it be in everyday life or in a disaster, we’d all be a lot better off. That’s not to say there is no room for gov’t to mobilize during disasters. We can all use help. We just can’t depend on their resources in super large emergencies because there resources, believe it or not, are limited.

  • Montucky

    One of the state issues on election day was to declare (for Montana at least) that corporations are not people and do not have all of the rights of private citizens. It will probably get us into a scrap with the Federal people, but, oh well!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Massachusetts has a similar nonbinding referendum last Tuesday!

  • Barbara

    Interesting post Bill – and not unexpected. I wrote a whole long rant in response. But you said it better. Well done. I hope that people do wake up and learn. Cross my fingers and my heart.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yep, we are all hoping Barbara. Time will tell. It will take some leadership at the community level. Hopefully they’ll get it right.

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