Are you Comfortable with Catastrophe?

Everywhere has disasters. In the United States, this ranges from earthquakes on the west coast, hurricanes on the east coast, and tornadoes in-between. The only question is which ones you can tolerate, and how you prepare for them.

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Surveying tornado-damage in Tupelo, Mississippi on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Photography credit: AP/Thomas Graning

I grew up on the west coast of North America, home to earthquakes, landslides, droughts, and fires, but relatively few severe storms. I know how to earthquake-proof my home, and teach immigrants to my city about duck! cover! hold on! I've scrambled over fresh landslide deposits in a quest for science, and debated the merits of leave-early evacuations versus trained stay-and-defend in combating urban-rural interface fires. No disaster is a pleasant, welcome experience, but these are ones I understand how to prepare for and respond to, and I feel comfortable with my level of ongoing risk.

Illustration for article titled Are you Comfortable with Catastrophe?

Clambering around the Mount Meager landslide in British Columia, August 2010. Image credit: Mika McKinnon

What really freaks me out, and what I openly acknowledge I am grateful is not a risk in the place I call home, is severe storms like hurricanes and tornadoes. I get that people who live where severe storms are common know what to do before and after a twister, but the random destruction of a tornado scares me. While forecasters can recognize the signs of impending doom and put an entire region on high-alert, they can't predict where a twister will touch down, why it will destroy an entire community but for a handful of houses, or reduce a home to rubble yet leave the driveway untouched.


When I swap disaster-stories with people on the other side of the continent, it's a frequent refrain that Californians are crazy for living somewhere that the earth could open up and gobble them without warning. I can handle that risk (in part because the likelihood of a crevasse both opening wide enough to gobble and snapping shut again is very small), but I find it terrifying to live somewhere where the sky could reach down and destroy everything in a moment. Disasters are everywhere; your only option is to pick living near the ones you understand well enough to mitigate.

I have a theory that people are most comfortable with the disasters they grew up with, the "normal" of their childhood that they learned about in school, but I have no evidence to test it. What disasters do you find least terrifying? Are they the same ones you grew up with? Has your perspective on tolerable natural hazards changed over time?


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Eric Drummond Smith

I'm from Appalachia - natural disaster-wise the safest place I know of - no hurricanes and tropical storms are rare and pretty well weakened by the time they get here (though we call any bad storm hurricanes and pronounce them, often, "her-ih-cun" - and we name towns and neighborhoods after them. Earthquakes happen but rarely can even be felt - in fact, I've only felt one in my entire 38 years and that was only because I was in a metal bed. Blizzards happen, but are easily dealt with 99% of the time - ice storms are rough, but modern meteorology allows decent prep with food stocks and candles. Flash floods are a bit scary in the hollows and valleys, but we've spent decades making sure that buildings are safe from them, so the only problem is having the sense to keep off the roads. Forest fires happen but nothing like out West where drought is a much more frequent occurrence. We never really had tornadoes that I remember when I was young, but we have started to have them occasionally - a nasty one hit near my alma mater of Emory & Henry College in 2011 and caused serious damage. No volcanoes for, you know, a geological epoch. No New River tsunamis. So mostly I'm worried about meteors. Meteors and zombies. And xenomorphs. Mostly.