By any measure, 2011 has been a superlatively rough year for Mankind. In just four months, Australia has suffered major flooding; New Zealandâ€™s second-largest city was virtually flattened by an earthquake; Japan suffered the triple-header of the biggest earthquake in that countryâ€™s known history, a tsunami, and a serious nuclear emergency; and just this week, the southern US experienced the biggest tornado outbreak in at least 37 years â€“ and possibly ever â€“ resulting in a loss of life second only to the fabled Tri-State Tornado of 1925 that killed about 700 people. Devastating is the sort of word that usually turns into hyperbole if overused, but when a major catastrophe occurs somewhere in the world on a monthly basis, the word actually starts to sound a little bland.
And the disasters are not just video footage for the casual consumption of the local news viewer, but have real impacts that ripple around the world. Japanâ€™s catastrophe, for example, has affected production in a few manufacturing firms here in the Philippines, and has even forced the Philippine government to significantly change its short-term financial planning. The flooding in Australia at the beginning of the year has interfered with that countryâ€™s ability to export coal for steel industries in China, India, and elsewhere, driving up commodity prices. Ironically, coal prices that were skyrocketing in the wakes of the floods dropped quickly as a result of Japanâ€™s disaster temporarily wiping out demand from that country in March, but have resumed a fast climb in the past month. The tornadoes in the US, while spectacular, drew attention away from what has been a much more widespread and potentially bigger related disaster: massive flooding in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, where millions of acres of the worldâ€™s biggest food producerâ€™s farmlands are now underwater.
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That this seismically-active and typhoon-prone nation would rather focus on pleasant irrelevancies and the presumed sins of the past administration rather than the real risks it faces is as disappointing as it is unsurprising. Even without the famous Pinoy bahala na attitude, incomprehensible disasters make most people at least a little fatalistic. Of course there is nothing anyone can do to prevent an earthquake, or a typhoon, or a buhawi, nor can anyone do anything other than react to the global ripples these kinds of disasters can cause from somewhere over a distant horizon. That is the challenge of life on this planet under the best of circumstances. And the circumstances are most certainly not their best when we continually fill the spaces between the inevitable big calamities with lots of little ones we can hardly blame on Mother Nature â€“ a rash of squatter-area fires, yet another landslide in a deforested wildcat mining area, polluted and silt-choked waterways, runaway population growth.
â€œBut,â€ you may protest, â€œI didnâ€™t cause any of those problems.â€ Didnâ€™t you? How many sachets have you bought in the past month? Do you separate your recyclables and biodegradable waste from your other trash? Do you walk a few blocks, or do you take a tricycle? Did you plan all your children, or are one or more of them â€œhappy accidents?â€
And even if your answers are â€œnone,â€ â€œyes,â€ â€œwalk,â€ and â€œIâ€™m such a good customer, Durex gave me a free calendar,â€ then do you know what you will do when the inevitable happens? Where will you go? How will you get there? Do you have a simple package with your important documents, a little money, and a few emergency supplies close at hand to take with you? Do you have a friend or relative outside the area who you and your family can contact for help, or to let everyone else know youâ€™re safe?
If the first thought that occurs to you when thinking about those questions is, â€œthe government will help us,â€ then consider this: in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the city hardest hit by the tornadoes of a few days ago, the city government lost its emergency management center, several police and fire stations, all its emergency response vehicles, and its main communications tower. Governments, being human inventions, are as vulnerable to the forces of nature as any other human thing. Hoping for the best is not a plan. Let the events of the past few months be an example of how bad things can be, and let those of us who have just had the random luck so far to not be on the wrong end of natureâ€™s wrath find ways to reduce our risks and give ourselves the best chance of recovering.