Comprehending death and destruction on an unimaginable scale

I’ve started several times to post something about the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. And stopped several times. It seems like everybody has posted about it, so what is there left to be said, anyway? We’ve been inundated by numbers that try to represent to us the magnitude of this tragedy – 150,000 dead, although this will certainly go higher; 5 million homeless people; a 9.0 earthquake, strongest in 40 years; 135 cubic miles of ocean water uplifted by the quake, forming the enormous tsunami. And then there’s the international aid situation, which sometimes seems like some kind of obscene competition. But the numbers are almost, maybe are, beyond comprehension. So I did some equivalencing.

I live in a small suburb of Jackson, Mississippi. The current reported death toll from this is equivalent to having almost the entire population of Jackson being wiped out in a space of about 5 minutes. Or the entire population of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Or Springfield, Missouri. or Tallahassee, Florida.

The number of homeless is equivalent to the entire population of Maryland suddenly being homeless. Or Arizona. Or Mississippi and Utah combined.

Imagine a wall of water 1 mile high, 1 mile wide, and 135 miles long. That’s how much ocean water was pushed up and out by the quake. imagine it moving at more than 500 miles per hour. Obviously, it wasn’t a mile high, but it was spread out much longer and wider.

A 9.0 earthquake is something like 700 times more powerful than the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, or the 1989 San Francisco eqarthquake.

But here’s the equivalency that keeps coming into my head: on 9/11/2001, about 3,000 people were killed. And the United States essentially ground to a halt for a week. I’m not trying to belittle those deaths, or our national response to them. But this is another human tragedy, not one inflicted by terrorists but a tragedy nonetheless, and this tragedy is bigger, in deaths, than 50 9/11 attacks. It didn’t take place on national television. It didn’t take place in our neighborhoods and cities. But the response of the American people, while generous, falls far short in an emotional sense, in a monetary sense, in an empathetic sense, of the response to 9/11. That’s understandable, to a point. And the wrold generally is still struggling to figure out how to respond to such an immense catastrophe. I don’t agree with those who criticized President Bush for an imagined slow or inadequate response. No one, outside the affected region, had any idea who inconceivably huge this was. President Bush reacted, I think, as appropriately as was possible under the circumstances. The question becomes, where do we go from here? And it doesn’t have to mean “what does the US government do now?”. Certainly there are many things the United States as a government can and will do. But the American people need to respond. They’re beginning to, and I think they will continue to do so. I get a little concerned when I hear, as I heard Wednesday, someone complain that all the news was doing was covering “that tidal wave”. “That tidal wave” was perhaps the greatest human tragedy in recorded and documented history. It wouldn’t hurt if we let the rest of the world stand still for a few days while we react.

January 1, 2005 В· Harry В· Comments Closed
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