Disaster-Mapping: Let’s Start Pulling the Pins Now

by Fred First

The car won’t start and the milk you poured on your cereal this morning went south. The kids have the flu and the cat is having more kittens in the washroom. You think you got troubles, brothers and sisters? Just browse over to The Emergency and Disaster Information Services (EDIS). Your local, personal, tea-pot tempest will seem far more survivable, given the fact that volcanoes and earthquakes, floods and wildfires are more consequential molehills than your mismatched socks.

This highly-informative web site integrates a Google-Earth-based map of the world with tables listing and categorizing world wide “events’ of natural and man-made disaster–always a good way to gain an “it could always be worse” perspective. At first glance, it might just seem like ambulance chasing from the comfort of your ergonomic office chair.

Look. There was a “nuclear incident” on the shore of Lake Michigan over the weekend. No cause for alarm, folks, nothing to see here, be on your way. It was an electrical cable issue, nothing to do with radioactive stuff, they say. Homer Simpson is alive and well and does not glow in the dark.

Ah…let’s look at volcanoes and such. The super-volcanic Yellowstone Caldera (Wyoming)  ranks 8 out of 8 on the “explosivity index.” This is no joke. The map description explains that just one eruption of the many in the past few million years produced 2,500 times as much ash as the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. The enormous dome has risen three inches each of the past three years. Here’s another good reason for my daughter to bring her family from SD to NC. Listening, girlie? (She’ll only remind me about the hurricanes they never have in SD.)

But this map is a serious tool, a lens that shows more than we could otherwise comprehend of planetary purturbations. Among the most serious human stories as I scan the globe this morning are the floods pinned on the EDIS world map, most notably perhaps, the 15 inches of rain on Queensland, Australia in January alone. Flooding and mudslides are extremely serious in Brazil, Malaysia, The Philippines and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia?

To learn more about any given event, click the little information “i” to the right of the row, and from the window that opens, click “description” to learn about the hanta virus cases in New Mexico or the higher-than-normal incidence of spinal meningitis or measles in New York.

This is a great resource for the globally curious citizen—a kind of accident report and health check at a glance. See for instance the category called “Mass Death of Animals.” Think of this as the Canary in the Cage section. There are more than 25 entries here, just in 2011, including all the thousands of birds that died inexplicably in several places around New Years. Some experts blamed fireworks; others are not so sure.

In the abstract, scanning a disaster map of somebody else’s problems can be a false comfort. Nope, no map pins anywhere in five hundred miles of us this morning, nothing to be concerned about here, back to what you were doing, biz as usual.

But stand far off in space and monitor the globe’s chills and fevers and consider: given the current trends in planetary climate shift plus the growing appetites of a busting-at-the-seams human population, are we likely to look at this map in one, five and twenty years and increasingly see events—famines and displacement, droughts, wildfires, floods, sea level change—that are not just nature taking its course? More and more, mankind’s actions or inactions will put pins on this map. And we have no other Earth to go to.

Leave space and the abstract. Go down to the ground. Look around; and look ahead. Lean into the hard truth of human suffering signified by each colorful map pin. By our choices, by our commitment and foresight now, could we reduce the disease and chaos, hunger and thirst, pain and privation of future emergency and disaster?

Volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, as the insurance company describes them,  may be Acts of God. We can only prepare for them. But the Acts of Man should not put pins on this map. I think about that, and wonder what the EDIS map will look like when my kids are my age. For their sakes, I’d love to imagine it boring and empty. But wishing will not make it so.

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