Traditionally, the phrase “natural disasters” refers to serious disruptions brought on by forces outside human control. Some call these “forces of nature” while others name them “acts of God.” Either way, we are assured that we had nothing to do with them. An easy list of such moments would include floods, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, tsunamis, lightning strikes. Perhaps there was a time in human evolution when such events truly were caused by forces beyond human prevention, but that no longer is the case. In the United States, one of the worst weather events in recent history was Hurricane Katrina. It was quickly labeled a “natural disaster” caused by a massive hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Seaboard. Even if we allow that the hurricane itself was a natural disruption, what happened to New Orleans and other parishes in Louisiana most certainly was not attributable to natural forces alone. In fact, as scientists and investigators from various areas of study analyzed what happened to New Orleans, it became clear that the devastation to that old city was not caused by the hurricane itself. It actually deflected at the last minute and hit the Gulf Coast with much less force than had been predicted by meteorologists originally. The devastation was caused by levees that could not hold in the face of the heavy rains and from water coming from the north of the city itself. These levees had been inspected years before the hurricane and glibly and falsely pronounced as being able to hold against natural forces. So the “disaster” that was played out on TV screens and in people’s lives for weeks was “caused” by human agencies and individuals who were unwilling to spend the money it would take to strengthen existing levees and build new ones that might actually defend residents from strong natural storms.
Or consider images seen more and more frequently as the planet warms alarmingly fast of tornadoes tearing through parts of this country and the larger world at seasons and with a strength not experienced in the past. Just a day or so ago, New Orleans itself was struck by a tornado that demolished scores of dwellings, many in the wards most devastated by the waters that followed Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. So people who had only just restored something resembling the lives they lost in that earlier unnatural disaster now find themselves once again homeless and destitute. Or listen to veteran fire fighters in California and other places in the United States who appear on the nightly news saying in all their decades of fighting forest fires, (only some of which were ever “natural disasters” since many have been started by arsonists or careless people who toss a still-burning cigarette in the wrong brush pile), they have never seen anything like the one they are trying futilely to control at the moment. These catastrophes that are so expensive in terms of loss of trees needed to ward off a hotter and hotter atmosphere and of human property should no longer be referred to as “natural disasters.” Our own selfish behaviors are the real causes. Until we are willing to name them truthfully, we have little hope in getting legislatures to pass laws that might at least slow down the rate of atmospheric warming that will cause worse and worse events that may continue to be mis-labeled.
It is convenient to call all these current tragedies by the old, familiar term. But we hide our heads in this particular sand box at our own peril and, more significantly, at the peril of the planet we call home.