A wall of water now rules our freak-of-nature nightmares. Like the whirling funnel that drops down from the sky, it gives scant warning. But unlike a tornado, it devastates wide swathes of civilization, and there’s no tsunami equivalent of a tornado cellar for sitting out the violent weather.
Hurricanes consume entire cities, but they generally arrive after days of warnings. What could one do in the coastal Japanese city of Sendai, when the ground suddenly shook and two stories of water came rolling over?
That instant upheaval is the terror of it, and no Hollywood disaster movie can equal those scenes of large boats flying off the wave’s edge and smashing under bridges. (Warner Brothers has pulled Clint Eastwood’s tsunami move, “Hereafter,” from Japanese theaters.) And any movie that portrayed the real-life sequence of “frightening failures in three nuclear powerplant reactors” would have been bashed as propaganda by nuclearpower interests.
In an editorial titled “Nuclear Overreactions,” The Wall Street Journal sought to downplay the dangers by calling the event “a once-in-300-years earthquake.” ( Meanwhile, the front- page headline screamed, “Japan Races Against Time,” and a subhead read, “Officials Struggle to Prevent Meltdown at Two Reactors.”)
Note the tendency to assess the frequency of occurrences by the yardstick of the human lifespan. Three hundred years is a speck of time for Mother Nature. Even in personal experience terms, it leaves a one-third probability of something happening during a centenarian’s lifetime. Those odds are scarier in the case of nuclear energy, which — while non-greenhouse gas-producing and not imported from the Mideast — does hold a tiny risk of causing a catastrophe, but one that does not now seem inconsequential.
Your writer has been a supporter of nuclear energy for the good reasons cited above. She had put the calamitous failure scenario on a high shelf of worries, due to the layers of safeguards installed in modern nuclear plants. (Her main environmental concern has centered on where to store the nuclear waste.) Now she’s less sure.
The Japanese are the most orderly of people. And as the only country to experience the trauma of a nuclear explosion, it ensured that any nuclear facility be among the safest and best managed. And now we have all sorts of things going wrong there.
Humankind has conquered many diseases. Smallpox and polio, which killed or maimed millions, are now largely gone.
But on the geological level, science has gotten better at watching than at fixing. We can’t stop the earth’s plates from moving. No wall can hold back a sea determined to flood.
The first levees “protecting” low-lying New Orleans from surging waters were built by French settlers in the 1700s. In the centuries that followed, the levees grew in size and sophistication. But when Hurricane Katrina came to visit in 2005, many of them failed, and only the natural high-ground areas escaped inundation.
Blame poor maintenance. Blame nearly 100 years of floodcontrol projects that tampered with the Mississippi River’s upstream course. Blame the levees themselves for compromising the marsh’s ability to control flooding. But also blame the complacency that grows from measuring time through human memory banks. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Hurricane Betsy and the floodwaters she sent surging into New Orleans were 30 long years in the rearview.
Bear in mind that Betsy and Katrina were category 4 hurricanes. Three category 5 hurricanes have made recorded landfall in the United States. The most recent was Andrew in 1992, which devastated South Florida.
Neither national wealth nor planning nor discipline can stop Mother Nature on a rampage. Societies may be able to contain their losses, but humankind is clearly not in charge. ©2011 The Providence Journal