Just watched an interview of former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Nagin’s promoting his new book, Katrina’s Secrets; Storms After the Storm, Vol. 1. What was interesting was Stewart calling him out on his own lack of preparation for what followed the storm, but I found myself responding with anger so much as an understanding I didn’t have before.
I have always lived somewhere rife with natural disasters. I was born in Chicago and spent the first ten years of my life with regular tornado warnings. I then moved to the Bay Area, where I learned that an earthquake could feel something like a truck rumbling past our apartment building. Right before I started junior high school, my mother and I moved to Miami Beach, Florida; Hurricane Andrew hit while I was visiting my grandmother back in Chicago the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, and when I returned a week or so later, the many-ton air conditioning unit of our 500+ unit high rise on the Intercoastal Waterway had been blown off the roof, there were still trees down all over the city, and we had to boil water to drink. My mother spent the next year working for FEMA in Homestead, the little town of trailer parks that had taken the brunt of the storm. When I came home for the summer after my first year of college in Ithaca, where there was always a risk of ice storms and blizzards, I split a studio apartment across the street from the Atlantic Ocean with a friend from high school and was subjected to a mandatory evacuation as Hurricane Erin launched itself first at South Florida before landing in Vero Beach.
After college, I moved to California. I lived in Los Angeles for two years and the moved back to the Bay Area for what would have made ten years this August had Jason and I not relocated to Austin. Our first weekend here, there were tornado warnings two counties north of us as deadly storms struck all over the south.
Listening to Ray Nagin tonight, it something occurred to me that hadn’t before. Jon Stewart questioned him as to why the city hadn’t prepared for the kind of damage and need that came after the storm, and he said, frankly, because it hadn’t happened before. Taking a quick gander at Twitter right now, I see a number of people clowning Nagin, but I get it. Why? Because of Japan. And because people still live in San Francisco.
Japan–earthquakes are not new there, but no one anticipated what happened earlier this year, or the extent of the damage that the ensuing tsunami would cause. Japan is one of the best prepared countries in the world when it comes to natural disasters, but still, what happened there in March was inconceivable. Similarly, it was not Katrina herself but the flood that followed that made the situation in on the Gulf Coast in 2005 so dire.
And what does this have to do with San Francisco? Well, people still live there. It’s not because they don’t know that The Big One is going to hit eventually (an earthquake that won’t be the same kind of quake that hit Japan, for geological reasons, but still The Big One). It’s because… it hasn’t happened yet.
Now imagine that San Franciscans were evacuated two, three times a year because there was going to be an earthquake, but that quake was never The Big One. That is the reality of those who live in both Hurricane Alley and tornado country. We watch the news, we see the warnings, and if we have the means or our municipalities the resources to help us, we evacuate. But the storm is never as big as it is supposed to be.
People continue to live in earthquake zones with the knowledge that doing so is inherently fraught with danger. But we don’t spend six months of every year hearing that The Big One is coming in two days. Perhaps if we did, and it never came, we would stop evacuating, too. Especially if we couldn’t afford to.