More Disasters

The good news is that folks on the Gulf Coast probably won’t be affected by Hurricane Irma. Not directly.

Cleanup and rebuilding there is taking a back seat to news of this weekend’s hurricane and Mexico’s major earthquake.

I’ll be talking about this week’s disasters, and how folks deal with them. Also faith, reasonable and otherwise, and a little science:

Before I get started, here’s a link to reality checks from FEMA, and NOAA’s National Hurricane Center:

American news services have been focusing on how folks in Florida are getting ready for Irma. Folks there will be experiencing the storm soon, and any nation’s news is likely to focus on that nation. The storm has already made a mess of places in the Caribbean.

I don’t know how many folks have died so far, either because of the storm or earthquake.

Known death tolls are still going up as survivors dig out and other folks search debris. It’s already bad news. Dozens died in the earthquake, and well over 20 when Irma went over.

We may learn that at least some folks would have survived if buildings had been sturdier, or they’d made different decisions.

I think reviewing what happened and why makes sense. That’s how we learn what we should keep doing, and what we should change.

Sometimes we learn that someone who should have known better acted badly. Truth and justice are important. The same goes for mercy and helping each other. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2447, 2472, 24752487)

Looking for someone to blame during a crisis? Not so much.


(From AFP, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
(“The tremor was strong enough to bring down buildings near Mexico City”
(BBC News))


(From EPA, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
(“A collapsed building in the town of Matias Romero in Oaxaca state”
(BBC News))

Blaming a superhuman entity for disasters isn’t new. What changes with time and fashion is who’s supposed to be in a divine snit, and what we presumably did to vex a surly spirit.

I’ve been noticing Mother Nature getting the credit for recent disasters.

Apparently the Earth goddess is peeved at folks who pollute. Or litter. Or maybe it’s how some voted. I’m not sure about details, and I’m pretty sure folks who play the blame game are mistaken.

It’s been a few years since a high-profile American Christian said something daft about natural disasters and sinners. I haven’t noticed it, anyway. I can’t say that I miss ‘the good old days.’

“Sin,” by the way, isn’t doing something that I don’t enjoy, can’t afford, or couldn’t do if I wanted to.

It’s what happens when I don’t love God and my neighbor — or don’t see everyone as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2537; Catechism, 1706, 1776, 1825, 18491851, 1955)

It’s an offense against reason, truth, and God. (Catechism, 18491851)

That happens a lot more often than I like. But I’m working on it. (August 27, 2017; December 4, 2016)

Sinners in the Hands of an Uptight God?

Dipping a little deeper into the well of the past, folks in England were told that the Great Storm of 1703 was God’s way of smiting them for the sins of their nation.

English pastors were dredging that up in moralizing sermons into the 19th century.

Daniel Defoe opined that the English hadn’t sufficiently smited — smote? smitten? — Catholics in the War of the Spanish Succession.

On the ‘up’ side, Europe’s seemingly-interminable turf wars did eventually encourage a little clear thinking. Also, arguably, the French Revolution. Oh, well.

I like to think that we’re learning. A little. Slowly. (June 25, 2017; July 14, 2017; November 6, 2016; October 30, 2016)

Here’s a short list of wacky notions:

I’ll give Jennifer Lawrence the benefit of the doubt. Her attitude may be at least partly well-played publicity for her current movie. Show business seems to have its own rules.

Folks with a particular style of spirituality give cartoonists like Wiley Miller opportunities for humor. I might be offended if I thought his “Church of Danae” was attacking my faith. (August 27, 2017; August 23, 2017)

But I’m a Christian and a Catholic. I recognize the sort of faith Mr. Miller reflects in his “Church of Danae” gags.

It has little to do with mine.

“There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.”
(“Radio Replies Vol. 1,” Forward, page ix, Fulton J. Sheen (1938) via Wikiquote)

Venom-spitting apostles of anger are still with us. But I think the ‘Angry God’ brand of Christianity is less influential these days. Happily.

I don’t think any of this shows that Christianity is stupid, that environmental awareness causes craziness, or that movie makers are bad.

I do think that natural disasters happen, and that they’re just that: natural disasters.

When they happen, part of our job may be to clean up the mess and rebuild. Some of us may be able to help folks who are doing that.

No pressure, but the Red Cross isn’t the only organization that steps in with disaster relief. I think CRS, Catholic Relief Services, is worth mentioning.

As the name implies, they’re Catholic. They’ll help anyone who needs it.

Their mission statement says their job is “to assist people on the basis of need, not creed, race or nationality.”

About Mother Nature and all that, I take environmental concerns seriously. But I don’t assume that a contemporary remake of Gaia or Phra Mae Thorani deserves special attention. (Catechism, 337344, 21122114, 2402, 24152418)

God’s God, everyone and everything else isn’t. Remembering that makes sense.

Disasters happen, but it’s not because God has anger management issues. Seeing God as irritable, or worse, is our problem: not God’s. We’ve had a warped image of God for a very long time. (Catechism, 399)

We also have trouble dealing ourselves, and with each other, and that’s another topic. (July 23, 2017; March 5, 2017; November 6, 2016)

Mexican Earthquake


(From AFP, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
(“Soldiers stood guard after a hotel collapsed in the town of Matias Romero, Oaxaca state”
(BBC News))


(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Mexico’s strongest quake in century strikes off southern coast
BBC News (September 8, 2017)

An earthquake described by Mexico’s president as the country’s strongest in a century has struck off the southern coast, killing at least 33 people.

“The quake, which President Enrique Peña Nieto said measured 8.2, struck in the Pacific, about 87km (54 miles) south-west of Pijijiapan.

“Severe damage has been reported in Oaxaca and Chiapas states.

“A tsunami warning was initially issued for Mexico and other nearby countries, but later lifted.

“The quake, which struck at 23:50 local time on Thursday (04:50 GMT Friday), was felt hundreds of miles away in Mexico City, with buildings swaying and people running into the street. The tremors there were reported to have lasted up to a minute….”

BBC News is better than most at letting reporters get facts — and publishing them, along with (generally) common-sense analysis. (September 1, 2017)

A quake the size of the one off Mexico’s coast isn’t unusual. It’s ‘news’ in America partly because it’s fairly close.

“…This is the biggest quake experienced anywhere in 2017. Going on the statistics, you would expect at least one magnitude 8 to occur somewhere on the planet each year.

“It occurred where the Pacific ocean floor is drawn under Mexico and Guatemala. A great slab of rock, known as the Cocos tectonic plate, is driving towards the coast at a rate of 75mm per year. As it jerks downwards into the Earth’s interior, about 200km offshore, large tremors are the inevitable outcome….”
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News (September 8, 2017))

I think we will probably learn to predict earthquakes about as well as we predict weather today, eventually.

Right now, we’re learning what causes them and where they’re most common. We’ve found some answers and uncovered new questions, which is par for the course.

Prediction is pretty much limited to knowing roughly how much time passes between quakes in any one spot: on average. (July 28, 2017)

Earthquake science may be about where we were with meteorology and weather forecasting about a century ago.

Until fairly recently, folks in North America’s Tornado Alley knew that a tornado might hit; but not when it would. Not until we saw spinning clouds with bits of buildings inside, that is.

The earliest recorded earthquake I know of is the Mount Tai earthquake, about four millennia back. We don’t hear much about the 62 Pompeii earthquake, maybe because it wasn’t as destructive as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79.

We know more about earthquakes that happened recently.

At first glance, it could look like earthquakes happen more often now than in the past.

Maybe someone’s plotted the numbers and said that Earth will explode at some point from all the shaking.

Calling that unlikely would be a world-class understatement. I haven’t researched and proven this, but I’m quite sure quakes have been happening at roughly the same rate, on average, for the last several millennia.

They’re recorded more often now because we’re getting better at making, keeping, and correlating records.

Knowing more about events like the 2001 Geiyo earthquake than the 464 BC Sparta earthquake isn’t surprising.

We’ve learned a bit over the last two dozen centuries. We know more about what to look for, and how to gather and record data.

Our largest social units are bigger too, on average. (March 19, 2017)

I think that helps us cope with disasters. It may also help explain why we know so little about some ancient civilizations. (March 12, 2017; March 30, 2017)

Caribbean Hurricanes


(From Dutch military, via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
(“The Dutch military released aerial pictures showing the devastation on Sint-Maarten”
(BBC News))


(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Hurricane Irma has destroyed homes and businesses across the Caribbean. This is the scene on one street in Saint-Martin”
(BBC News))

Hurricane Jose: ‘Barely habitable’ Barbuda residents flee
BBC News (September 8, 2017)

The entire population of Barbuda, the small Caribbean island devastated by Hurricane Irma, has been evacuated as a second powerful storm, Hurricane Jose, is expected to hit the region on Saturday.

“The Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, said Barbuda had been left ‘barely habitable’ with 95% of its building structures destroyed by Irma….”

Barbuda sounds a bit like Barbados or — sort of — Bermuda. All three are somewhat close to North America, with weather that’s not much like Minnesota’s.

About 1,600 or so folks live on Barbuda. The island is not particularly large. It’s mostly coral limestone, and mostly flat. The highest parts of the eastern highlands are 125 feet, 38 meters, above sea level.

Evacuating folks on Barbuda to Antigua seems to make sense, since another hurricane is coming.

Antigua is larger, higher, and — I hope — better equipped to shelter folks.

I don’t know how many folks living on Barbuda died during the storm.

One, a teenage surfer, was out riding waves stirred up by Irma. He died after falling off his board and hitting a reef. (BBC Newsbeat)

I’ve read of one other death on Barbuda, an infant. (BBC News)

Golfers of the Apocalypse?


(From David Simon (@AoDespair), Twitter, used w/o permission.)
(“In the pantheon of visual metaphors for America today, this is the money shot.”
(David Simon, journalist, on Twitter))

Apocalyptic Thoughts Amid Nature’s Chaos? You Could Be Forgiven.
Henry Fountain, The New York Times (September 8, 2017)

“Vicious hurricanes all in a row, one having swamped Houston and another about to buzz through Florida after ripping up the Caribbean.

“Wildfires bursting out all over the West after a season of scorching hot temperatures and years of dryness.

“And late Thursday night, off the coast of Mexico, a monster of an earthquake.

“You could be forgiven for thinking apocalyptic thoughts, like the science fiction writer John Scalzi ….

“…Or the street corner preacher in Harlem overheard earlier this week ranting about Harvey, Irma and Kim Jong Un, in no particular order.

“Or the tens of thousands who retweeted this image of golfers playing against a raging inferno of a wildfire in Oregon….”

That photo reminded me of a gag poster, or maybe bumper sticker, from a half-century back. It read “APATHY IS RAMPANT, BUT WHO CARES?”

I care plenty, but don’t see a point in hand-wringing angst.

Part of my job is contributing to the common good and getting involved as best I can. (Catechism, 1915, 2239)

I don’t see pessimism as piety, and the ‘gloominess is next to Godliness’ attitude seems silly. Or worse.

Decades of living with undiagnosed depression gave me little reason to imagine that melancholy was somehow admirable, and that’s yet another topic. (May 12, 2017; October 14, 2016)

Where was I? Storms, earthquakes, movies, comics, golfing through the Apocalypse. Right.

A bit after talking about golfers and an Oregon inferno, Henry Fountain mentions the recent eclipse and said that “all the recent ruin seems deeply, darkly not coincidental.”

I kept reading, and saw this bit of good sense: “…As any scientist will tell you, nature doesn’t work that way….”

He went on to talk about hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and history. Pretty much what I do, when explaining why I didn’t jump on the latest ‘end of the world’ bandwagon. (August 23, 2017; January 20, 2017)

I can see how someone in their teens or early adulthood might believe that End Times are nigh, or that the crisis du jour is but a prelude to humanity’s demise.

Wannabe prophets, spiritual and secular, can be quite persuasive. Appealing, at any rate. I think that’s partly due to imminent doom’s dramatic appeal. It’s the sort of thing that sells tickets to disaster movies.

Films like “Geostorm” and “2012” may be entertaining. But I think their science is about as reliable as the theology in “Hell Baby” and “The Seventh Sign.”

I see disasters like the ones making headlines this weekend as natural events. Doing what we can to prepare for them, within reason, makes sense. So does helping folks who are affected, when we can.

Fretting about whether End Times are Upon Us, or imagining that Mother Nature is vexed? That seems like a waste of time and effort. At least.

I can use suffering, joy, any experience, as a reason to pray and rejoice. (1 Thessalonians 5:1618; Catechism, 2648)

But that doesn’t mean I should seek suffering, or try to get sick. That’s not being Saintly. That’s being daft. (August 18, 2017; July 21, 2017)

I think disasters, illness, any of the routine rough spots we experience, can be good reminders that I’m working out my salvation. (Philippians 2:12)

Also that I’ve got limited time, like everyone else. (August 27, 2017; April 9, 2017; December 4, 2016)

Weather Modification Experiments

We keep learning that technology isn’t foolproof safe. That doesn’t make tech, or us, bad.

It means that using our brains is important. (February 10, 2017; November 18, 2016)

I think the old ‘lords of creation’ and today’s ‘be very afraid’ attitudes are unreasonable. (August 11, 2017; July 14, 2017)

My guess is that many or most folks realize that humans aren’t all-powerful these days.

There’s some wisdom in seeing that we’re not all-powerful, and that doing whatever we want with this world occasionally has unpleasant results. Going to the other extreme? I’ll get back to that.

Suffering and illness can be a good reality check for hubris. They’re reminders that we’re limited, finite, powerless. (Catechism, 1500)

Compared to God, anyway. Forgetting that is a really bad idea. So, I think, is forgetting who and what we are. (July 23, 2017; November 13, 2016)

This is a big universe.

I think we’ll never run out of scientific puzzles to solve, or learn ‘too much.’ We do not and will not have infinite knowledge or power. (August 20, 2017; March 26, 2017)

On the other hand, I don’t think we’re utterly helpless.

I certainly don’t think we offended an irascible God by making lightning rods and eradicating smallpox. (October 16, 2016)

God gives us brains, a thirst for knowledge, and a knack for using what we learn to develop new tools. This is a good thing. Science and technology are part of being human. They’re what we’re supposed to be doing. (Catechism, 159, 214217, 283, 294, 341, 22922295)

That makes sense, since part of our job is taking care of this world. We’re stewards, responsible for its maintenance. We can and should use its resources: wisely, keeping future generations in mind. (Catechism, 24152418, 2456)

We’ve been learning how weather works, including hurricanes.

Again, I don’t see this as a problem. ‘Blessed are the ignorant, for they shall remain clueless’ is not one of the Beatitudes.

We even know how to modify weather.

That’s hasn’t worked out as well as we hoped. Not yet.

Serious cloud seeding research was happening in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, weather control tech was being field tested. It looked like just a matter of time before we could decide when, where, and how much it rains.

Results of field testing were inconclusive.

That was a good thing for one team of scientists. A storm they modified grew, a lot, before reaching the Rapid City area.

The 1972 Black Hills flood caused 238 deaths and 3,057 injuries, and destroyed over a thousand homes. It didn’t take survivors long to learn who had been tweaking the storm a little earlier.

American courts eventually decided they didn’t have enough evidence to hold the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences liable for the death and destruction.

As I recall, public discussion of weather modification stopped rather abruptly after that. (May 26, 2017)

I think we’ll eventually know how to modify weather: safely. But I think today’s caution is probably a good idea.

In 1947, scientists seeded a hurricane east of Jacksonville, Florida. That may or may not be why the storm abruptly turned around and hit Georgia.

America’s government changed the rules after that, banning modification of storms with a 10% or better chance of reaching land in 48 hours.

Scientists tried quenching a hurricane again in 1969. They seeded Hurricane Debbie twice. Winds dropped each time: temporarily.

We’ve learned that hurricanes recycle their eyewalls fast. The 1947 and 1969 experiments may not have been as successful, or disastrous, as we thought.

That’s not terribly surprising. Tropical cyclones are huge storms. A hurricane releases roughly 70 times as much energy as we use: all seven-billion-plus of us.1

Learning how to control that, safely, will take more than we know today. Probably a lot more. But I don’t think it’s impossible, and am quite sure that we’ll figure out how. Eventually.

Other Catholic views of life, prayer, and making sense:

Dealing with disaster, my views:


1 What we’re learning, who we are:

About Brian H. Gill

I’m a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I’m only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.

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2 Responses to More Disasters

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Missing a word: “Again, I don’t see this a problem.”

    Missing punctuation: “as we hoped. Not yet”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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