Natural Disasters

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 (Paul Staley)

Winter storms can strike anywhere, and there will always be forest fires. But last month's earthquake reminded us that just as there are regional differences in terms of cuisine or accents, so it is with natural disasters as well.

Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Take your pick.  Most of the country already has, and is either reconciled or acclimated to that choice. People in Kansas will say that they couldn't live in earthquake country and many of us simply state that we couldn't live in Kansas. Pick your location, pick your poison.

An old convention refers to the natural world as "Mother Nature" and these events are proof that she likes to rearrange things: an altered coastline, uprooted trees, and in the case of an earthquake, one more step in a lurching, incremental remodeling job that lasts for eons.   

Hurricanes have life spans, and so we put a human face to them, giving them names. At their most massive they are an invading continent of clouds that roars in, teaching us that what we see as sturdy-brick and mortar, wood and nail-are no match for an alliance of wind and water.

Tornadoes display nature at its most arbitrary and random: an unscathed house sits right across the street from the wreckage of another. Anonymous and capricious, they demonstrate the power to be found by focusing just a fraction of the energy that surrounds us.


These weather-spawned disasters are like plants — they have growing seasons — and our technology allows us to spot and track them. But earthquakes retain the ancient mystery of the unanticipated. Their destructive power not only inspires awe but they also link us to an ancestral life in which there were no satellites or body scans and unseen threats loomed around us or festered inside our bodies.

These days we understand that earthquakes are a release of tectonic pressure, not an expression of divine moral judgment. But still, it is worth noting that although the Bay Area may be less biblically inclined than other parts of the country, our regional form of disaster occurs only when an immense and mysterious power suddenly reveals itself.

With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.

Paul Staley works for a housing nonprofit. He lives in San Francisco.