An awesome force of nature
As we are well aware, Hurricane Sandy tore through the northern Caribbean last week and transformed into a massive ‘superstorm,’ hitting the eastern seaboard of the USA on Monday evening. As it merged with a cold front from the north, giving it a total diameter of almost 2,000 miles, it became the largest in Atlantic storm history.
As questions abound regarding the unprecedented mix of meteorological conditions that gave rise to the post-tropical ‘Frankenstorm‘ into which Sandy mutated, there is no shortage of theories that it was somehow the result of climate change and, ipso facto, caused by humankind’s deleterious impact on the environment.
It may be premature though to attribute Sandy to global warming, because of its hybrid nature and the fact that the combination of factors giving rise to it has been generally described as a “freak event.” Nevertheless, there is a considerable body of evidence that climate change is leading to rising sea levels and contributing to the increased occurrence and ferocity of hurricanes, because of warmer seas providing more power for these tropical storms. In this respect, Sandy may have been a wake-up call for many, especially the complacent and the ignorant.
Everywhere Sandy left a trail of death and destruction. The economic costs are still being assessed, with estimates in the USA going into the tens of billions. Notwithstanding the powerful images of devastation emerging from the northeast of the country, the affected states will recover in good time, such is their economic might and resilience. It will take a while longer, however, for the poorer islands of the Caribbean, especially Haiti, which through a cruel combination of circumstances, both natural and man-made, seems unable to rebound from one disaster before it is buffeted by another. In terms of absolute scale, Sandy’s impact on the USA appears overwhelming. On the other hand, in relative terms, the effect on the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, its infrastructure already wrecked by the January 2010 earthquake, is arguably indescribably worse. Unfortunately, for the beleaguered people of Haiti, the mainstream media will keep the spotlight on the USA.
Yet, there can be no denying that the human cost everywhere is incalculable and the psychological scars borne by Sandy’s survivors will take a long time to heal. But does it help people to think of the superstorm by this androgynous, almost innocuous name? Does it make the pain and suffering less, to personify such a natural phenomenon?
Hurricanes are, of course, named alphabetically by the World Meteorological Organisation. For many years, they were named after the saint’s day on which they fell. Then, in 1953, in a sexist twist, hurricanes were given female names, following the 1941 novel, Storm, which featured as its protagonist a hurricane called Maria. Today, in a more politically correct age, hurricane names alternate between male and female.
But there is no differentiating between male and female-named hurricanes – they can be equally deadly and devastating. Nor does personifying them diminish them or make them any less frightening, as they wreak havoc on lives and property, impersonal and immune to the cares and concerns of humanity.
Perhaps, it satisfies some basic human instinct for meeting disorder with order, for making sense of all that is irrational and calamitous in life, for giving meaning to our finite time on this planet, that we should seek to think of natural phenomena in human terms. Going back to ancient times, people have sought to explain storms as the wrath of the gods or as representative of Mother Nature and her anger with humankind’s abuse of her hospitality. And through the centuries, we have sought to bend nature to our will, only for nature to remind us from time to time of the futility of our conceit.
Whilst our personification of nature and of hurricanes may therefore be nothing more than a perverse example of pathetic fallacy, we can be certain that this particular superstorm was an awesome force of nature and will not be the last cataclysm to threaten our existence. For we trifle with nature and our environment at our peril.