MIAMI-The Americas were under siege this week, but not from terrorists, foreign armies or plagues. The most primal and irresistible forces of nature are outside the walls of the fortress, threatening to batter them down and wreak havoc within. Hurricane Ivan was the latest, and he's laid waste to the lives of tens of thousands of people across the West Indies and the southern states.
Here in the United States, people had to cope with two earlier hurricanes, both given female names in the alphabetical, alternating gender list that meteorologists put out every tropical storm season. I wrote about one of them, Hurricane Charley, some weeks ago (Disaster in America, #210). And I've just come back from feeling the effects of the second, Hurricane Frances. Ivan was far, far worse than either of those two. He's larger, more intense and completely unpredictable. Just ask the people of the Caribbean island of Grenada, the first place that Ivan struck. Screaming winds and deluges of rain left 50 or more dead, and wrecked more than half of the houses on the island. People knew it was coming, but they didn't expect to hit so hard, so directly.
A little later, an even stronger Hurricane Ivan (tropical storms pick up intensity over water and weaken over land) headed towards the more populous and poverty-stricken island of Jamaica. The nation prepared for the worst as best as people living in tin shacks and slums can. But at the last minute, Ivan veered and hit Jamaica with its fringes and not its full destructive power. It was devastating, but it could have been worse. Up here in Florida, for the third time in a little over a month, people were asked to leave their homes in threatened areas. They were given lots of notice, a week or more, because it takes time to come to grips with the prospect of absolute devastation. Memory of hurricanes Charley and Frances is still frighteningly fresh, so it didn't take much to persuade Floridians that they should be ready for the worst.
I wonder at times like this about Nepal and its earthquake preparation strategy. I can hear people snorting into their tea all over the kingdom. Preparation? Strategy? Never mind that there's no culture of being ready for the worst by minimising the opportunity for damage or death. How can a country that sees itself as in near-terminal decline prepare for those mysterious and unpredictable forces of nature that observe no timetables, or pay no heed to logic?
Yet if Nepal doesn't take its earthquake scenarios seriously, it is well and truly doomed. I've often been struck, when I had the privilege of living among you, by the utter disregard at every level of society for the coming and certain calamity of the 'Big One'. Warning after warning that a major tremor is overdue, that the earth's plates beneath Kathmandu are hugely unstable, that no one is doing anything to get ready-all these pass without notice. This newspaper and others do their best to point these things out, often by invoking memories of the disastrous quake of 1934 that killed 80,000 and informing us that the toll today of such an event would be millions.
Kathmandu Valley, home to 80 percent of the kingdom's economic activity, has but two road connections to the outside world, both through mountainsides that already tumble and block access in every passing shower. A single runway offers fixed wing aircraft the chance to take off or land. The recent riots show how close to the edge the populace is, how ill prepared the government and how evil forces of extreme right and left are ready to take advantage of any situation.
Yet again from a scene of distant disaster, I plead with Nepal to get ready for the worst. But I know deaf ears when I see them. And they exist at every level of society in the land I learned to love. Good luck to you all.