The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them)
© 2018 Lucy Jones
Earth is not a peaceful place; even it were stripped of all life, it would still teem with energy, from vast tectonic plates below, to the rolling seas and fantastic lightening storms above. Much of that energy is put to use by human ingenuity, but sometimes it lashes out in displays that destroy hundreds or thousands of lives and undermine what we’ve built. The Big One reviews some of the greatest recorded disasters to strike human civilization, mixing science and history, and closes with some general advice to the public on how to think about disaster preparation and emergency management.
Jones’ background is in seismology, so it’s probably no surprise that most of the disasters chronicled here are earthquakes. But disasters that make history — the ‘big ones’ that people remember — are rarely by themselves. The great San Francisco earthquake, for instance, did great direct damage, but its greatest impact was the fires it helped create and feed. Likewise, for the Fukushima affair; the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan were formidable in themselves, but they compromised and accelerated the demise of a nuclear reactor and led to an altogether different kind. The most recent ‘big ones’ covered in this book are the Christmas 2004 tsunami that affected sixteen countries and killed nearly three hundred thousand people, and the Fukushima event. There are some here which have nearly no name recognition (like the massive earthquake that struck immediately after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in China, and some I’ve seen mentioned in other books, like the earthquake and fire that destroyed over eighty percent of Lisbon in 1755.
In addition to discussing the science behind disasters — why they happened, what specific forces are causing various calamities, why some earthquakes are more disastrous than others — Jones also addresses the long-term effects of these disasters when possible. The timing of the Lisbon earthquake — on All Saint’s Day, during the morning when all the churches were full of faithful parishioners celebrating the memory of saints present and pass — could not have been better timed for mass death, and it shook the faith of many, just as the Holocaust would centuries later. Japan and China’s traditional way of explaining disasters, as distortions of yin and yang, would be challenged by “big ones’ during the dawn of modernity as well. The disasters around the Mississippi — a great flood and then Katrina — also bring up a discussion of race, and the US government’s first forays into federal emergency management. Jones defends FEMA during Katrina, however, arguing that the great failures there happened on the ground, as both the city and state officials were not communicating with one another or with FEMA enough to be at all effective. In one of the few non-earthquake examples, Jones points to greater international information-sharing as a result of the 2004 tsunami. (Which…was triggered by an earthquake. We’re really never far removed from that!)
All said, this is an interesting history of how a few earthquakes have altered nations’ responses to disaster response, driving the desire to learn about them and find realistic politics to cope with the aftermath — topped with advice to citizens at the end that’s a little generic (“Educate yourself”). It’s not as wide-ranging as I’d hoped, since most of the disasters were earthquakes, but keeping this subject in mind is good for any citizen today. Future disasters will effect proportionally more people, as the global population swells and concentrates, and as the globe becomes fully industrialized we will have more distortive effects on the environment. Emergency awareness and management should be near to the forefront not just for citizens, but for every level of government.