Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Upside to Natural Disasters

Before I write anything else, I want to unequivocally explain that I think natural disasters are terrible. They cause countless deaths and incredible human suffering. With that being understood, I often find myself believing that things happen in nature for a reason, and so I started to ponder what some of the good aspects to natural disasters might be. I’ve come up with three ideas about what might be some positive consequences of natural disasters.

1. Natural Disasters Provide People with a Greater Respect & Appreciation for Nature

I currently live in Peru, and nowhere else has it been more obvious that natural disasters have influenced how people view and think about nature’s power. There are few people I have met in my travels in Peru who believe that they can control nature. Earthquakes are common in Peru, and have had a devastating effect here.

In 1970, perhaps the worst modern earthquake in the western hemisphere occurred in Peru, killing an estimated 70,000 people and leaving over half a million people homeless. The Peruvian Highlands city of Huaraz, where I currently live, was leveled. A city about an hour north of Huaraz called Yungay, was swept over in seconds by an avalanche triggered atop Mt. Huascaran. Among the 18,000 people living in that city, almost all were killed in seconds. My wife’s family were among a handful of survivors in a small town called San Marcos (also nearby) that was completely devastated by the earthquake.

I bring all of these things up, because I have personally witnessed how much the people in the Highlands Region of Peru, people like my parents-in-law, have ritualized their respect of nature into their culture. Last month in Huaraz, a festival in honor of the earthquake patron saint was held for a week in entirety. In traditional dress, every day local citizens marched through the city dancing and playing instruments in honor of El Senor de la Soledad (Our Lord of Solitude). Each smaller community in the region also holds events and dances of these kinds.

I doubt that these kinds of cultural understandings and respect for nature’s power are unique to Peru. In addition to providing people with a greater respect for nature, natural disasters probably also build cultural bonds through a shared experience, and consequently therefore strengthen community ties and heritage.

2. Natural Disasters Give Communities a Chance to Improve Infrastructure and Re-Prioritize Community Needs

In regard to this potentially positive aspect to natural disasters, it’s hard not to think of New Orleans, Louisiana, and other places in the American South that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2006. I’m not extremely familiar with how much progress has been made, but I remember reading about countless opportunities that were presented after Katrina to do things like rebuild shoddy homes, provide new jobs and health services to impoverished communities, and improve natural, ecological buffers so that a disaster on this scale could not happen again. I even remember that Brad Pitt received some publicity for co-sponsoring a sustainable design competition to help rebuild the city in a positive manner.

In Huaraz, Peru after the 1970 earthquake, buildings were constructed with a greater emphasis on anti-seismic measures. The adobe buildings that typified Huaraz prior to the earthquake did not tend to survive the earth’s movements. Now in Huaraz, beauty takes a backseat to safety, as the buildings and city are not extremely attractive. But these improvements to buildings show that the people of Huaraz have re-prioritized their own safety over aesthetics. The Peruvian government also in response has built preventative retaining walls and dams around and near high alpine lakes. Overflow from the lakes was largely responsible for causing huge mudslides immediately after the 1970 earthquake.

3. Research Has Shown That Natural Disasters Might Have Some Positive Ecological Effects

Did you know that hurricanes and tropical storms help distribute the Earth’s heat? Without the transfer of this heat from the Tropics to the Earth’s poles, climates might get totally out of whack. Large storms and the tremendous amounts of rainfall they bring with them are also beneficial to ecosystems and human agricultural needs. Researchers from Duke University’s School of Environment and Earth Sciences also say that without hurricanes, barrier islands on coast lines and their ecosystems would not survive. Of course while these are some positive benefits, it should be noted that hurricanes and the flooding they can cause might affect ecosystems negatively and, of course, harm the lives of a significant amount of people.

Fires are another natural disaster that can benefit ecosystems. They can eliminate unwanted invasive plants from certain ecosystems (but can also help spread them), enrich soils with fresh nutrients, and encourage greater plant diversity. Animals are also sometimes attracted to the new growth in fresh burn areas. Some plants are even dependent upon fire for their seeds to sprout in the long-term, and use fire to their advantage.

Are There More Positive Things to Say About Natural Disasters?

As I wrote in the very beginning, my intention is not to dismiss and disrespect the human suffering caused by natural disasters. But seeing as that almost every day the media reports depressing news and stories about natural disasters, it seems like a good thing to consider the potential positive sides to these events. In addition to the three major benefits I have written about ( 1. people gaining greater appreciation for nature, 2. the chance to rebuild communities positively and re-prioritize needs and 3. the potential benefits to ecosystems), are there other positive aspects to natural disasters that you can think of? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Original here

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