“I need power!” complained a neighbor yesterday. Don’t we all?
She meant electric power specifically which has been out at my house since Monday (October 29) courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. It will be out quite a bit longer by the looks of the dangling telephone wires, snapped poles, and trees hung up in electric lines along the surrounding roadways. Some local homes have generators, but these are sputtering to a halt as gasoline runs dry – few area stations have functioning fuel pumps, and those that do have long lines of cars stretching down the road. The power at my office, located on a main route, came back on last night, which offers me some private refuge from the cold and dark. At 946 millibars,
the 1938 record for the most severe hurricane on record north of .
Utility crews have lots of work. Cape Hatteras
My damage wasn’t severe in the way such things are measured. At the office, one tall pine tree came down in the parking lot, my sign blew down (two 6 x 6 inch posts snapped), and shingles stripped off the roof. At home, one pine hangs precariously over the garage and another one fell across the driveway. Otherwise the trees missed anything important, though fallen ones litter the yard. I've already cut up the trees in the driveway and parking lot.
Hurricanes, like earthquakes and other forces of nature, remind us of historian/philosopher Will Durant’s line: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Oh, we can prepare and fortify, and many of those efforts pay off, especially in more modest events. Sometimes they don’t. I remember an acquaintance in Lower Matecumbe Key in
Florida who once had lost his furniture to
flooding. So, when a hurricane was forecast he lashed his furniture to the
ceiling; there was no flooding but the wind took off the roof. Ultimately, some
things are bigger than we are. Sometimes all we can do is pick up the pieces as
best we can afterward.
Much the same goes for many man-made disasters. Much as we like to believe that, in social matters at least, every problem must have a solution and that good intentions are all we need to find it, history provides us with no reassurance. Humans are full of their own forces of nature which run amok. Not all of the disasters involve bloodshed, though there are plenty of those types, too. Consider, instead, economic turmoil of the sort documented in This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by
Princeton economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.
This was published soon after the 2008 financial crisis and is still one of the
best analyses of that event and others like it. Their conclusion is that these crises
are recurrent “equal opportunity” events that occur in all types of economies. One
inevitably will happen again despite any measures we put in place, because “a
financial system can collapse under the pressure of greed, politics, and
profits no matter how well regulated it seems to be.” Ultimately, there simply are
limits to the human capacity for self-governance – limits which grow ever more
evident as I grow older and more cynical – and sometimes there is little to do
but pick up the pieces after our follies lead to smash-ups.
Nothing we do to ourselves, however, can match what Earth can do to us when she gets cranky. Let’s hope her mood is pleasant for a while.
Clip from Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)