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October 27, 2005

Who Do We Blame For The Cost of Hurricane Wilma (and other natural disasters this year)

Topics: Natural Disasters

_40768586_earthquake203.jpeg[Image - Pain, but should there also be blame?]

The world has already had more than it's share of natural disasters this year. So who is responsible for natural disasters? God, nature, governments... One author wrote after Katrina that the natural disaster was bringing together a perfect storm of environmentalist and religious doomsday sayers.

Christian televangelist Pat Robertson says that the recent spate of natural disasters affecting the globe "might be" signs that the Biblical apocalypse is near. On an Oct. 9 episode of CNN's "Late Edition," Robertson noted that hurricanes such as Katrina and Rita and earthquakes like the ones that struck Pakistan recently and the tsunami-causing one that struck Indonesia last December are hitting with "amazing regularity."

But scientists aren't willing to blame the apocalypse just yet. For example, in the case of hurricanes, a decades-long cycle of busy and the quiet periods is evident in records dating back to the mid-1800s. This is not the first stretch of highly active hurricane seasons. It is just the first time so many people have lived near the coast during such an active period. And as far as earthquakes go, Seth Stein, a seismologists at Northwestern University's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, thinks everything is as it should be.

"I don't think there's any reason to believe the frequency of large earthquakes has changed over the past million years," Stein told LiveScience. "That's contrary to everything we know about how the Earth works."
So scientists basically see the earth doing what she always does, although they do say that natural disasters are becoming more common, and more costly.

And costly they are for sure. Looking at the insurance costs for the damage done by Hurricane Wilma, the most recent natural disaster, are estimated to top $10 billion, and Katrina was worse.

Fueled by unusually warm sea temperatures, the Atlantic hurricane season has been a record-breaker, with 22 tropical storms or hurricanes, besting the old record of 21 set in 1933.

This year was also marked by the most intense Atlantic storms ever recorded, including Hurricane Katrina, which in August burst the levees protecting New Orleans and flooded the city. Katrina killed more than 1,200 people and caused more than $30 billion in damage, probably the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

And just who or what is responsible for these recent disasters? Who do we blame? Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent, writes that our ideas about what causes disasters have undergone three important phases.
Traditionally, catastrophes were attributes to supernatural forces. Throughout most of history they were seen as an act or God or of fate. As an act of fate, catastrophes were portrayed as an inevitable occurrence, whose destructive power could not be avoided.

The rise of secularism led to an important shift in the way society conceptualised disasters. The development of science as the new source of knowledge altered people's perception of disasters. They were increasingly defined as an act of Nature. Though science could explain why and how it occurred, a natural disaster has no special meaning.

In recent times we still talk about natural disasters but we increasingly look for someone to blame. As a result the view that disasters are caused by acts of nature is being gradually displaced by the idea that they are the outcome of acts of human beings.
In the aftermath of a disaster today, the finger of blame invariably points towards another person. Government officials, big business or careless operatives are held responsible for most disasters.

Today, floods are less likely to be associated with divine displeasure than with greedy property developers recklessly building in flood plains. Events like last week's catastrophe in New Orleans are seen as destructive events that could have and should have been avoided.

How people perceive a disaster has an important impact in the way in which it is experienced. However, perceptions regarding causation are shaped by cultural attitudes that endow events, especially extreme ones with meaning.

in the 19th Century many "technologically-caused" disasters were interpreted as a manifestation of God's anger toward human arrogance. In such instances, anxiety about the consequences of technological change encouraged the perception that ultimately a disaster was caused by an Act of God.

Today such events would be associated with human action and the cause would be perceived as that of human irresponsibility or malevolence. When a train crashes or a mine is flooded we spontaneously ask the question "who is there to blame".

We are far less likely to represent floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or tsunamis as natural disasters than 40 or 50 years ago. Why? Because we live in a world where we can no longer accept that accidents or disasters are natural.

And as we search for and wrestle with various possible meanings of a catastrophe, there is no one moral story that we are all prepared to accept. Do we blame it all on God? How about politicians, or society, or eachother? Or should we even be playing the blame game at all?

Frank Furedi writes that by doing so we are in danger of facing a double disaster. One that is about physical destruction and loss of life, and the other which is the legacy of bitterness, confusion and suspicion. If we think about that for a moment, we can see ourselves already arriving at an endpoint of having become disoriented by an obsession to blame. And in doing so we allowed ourselves to miss the very important messages that come with each natural disaster - that each offers a powerful story of human love and compassion, of suffering and pain endured, and the knowledge that the world's people are capable of coming together as one.

Life matters, we need only live it, but we can best do it - together.

Posted by at October 27, 2005 6:02 AM

During the late 1970s I lived in the flood-prone Hawkesbury river region in New South Wales. My abode at that time was the Richmond-Windsor district. During our stay in that region we experienced at least two floods, and one of them was a major flood that caused high levels of flooding as well as several deaths attributed to the flooding.

The Nepean-Hawkesbury river system is controlled to some extent by the flood gates at Warragamba dam. Once the flood gates had been opened the overspill caused the serious flooding that we witnessed.

When this region was first settled, Governor Macquarie designated the areas within 5 specific towns that could be settled and were designated as safe from floods. By 1978, when the flood I witnessed occurred, the designation was being ignored and houses were being built in the flood plains for the first time. We moved away and returned to be near the area in 1996. What is most upsetting is that the NSW government has allowed building of homes in areas that become flooded in the more extreme flood prone conditions. When I experienced my first major flood we were safe and did not have to evacuate (we had guests arriving for our son's baptism. However, the street surrounding us became flooded, and that includes the end of Cox Street (where we lived), the golf course that was at the back of our property, and George Street - the portion that comprises what is now known as Windsor Downs. All of that area was under flood water.

So yes, when some of these areas do get flooded the blame has to lie with the authorities who blatantly ignored the advice of an early Australian settler in favour of making big bucks. The NSW government and the local Hawkesbury Council will be to blame if we have another serious flood and once again this area goes under water.

Posted by: Maggie4Life Author Profile Page at October 29, 2005 6:42 AM

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