In the past few weeks, the East Coast has experienced a sort of miniature End of Days – an earthquake that caused up to $300 million of damage from Georgia to Ontario, followed by a hurricane that claimed over 40 lives and is likely to rank as one of the costliest (if far from the deadliest) natural disasters in U.S. history. New Haven may have emerged relatively unscathed, but you only have to stroll over to Lynwood Avenue to get a sense of how bad it could have been.
There may be explanations for why Lynwood was especially hard-hit compared to the rest of the Yale neighborhoods — the street’s axis parallels the storm’s path, and the enormous limbs of its stately lindens were especially destructive “projectiles,” to borrow Dean Gentry’s word. But it’s hard for those affected not to feel targeted, and for the rest of us not to feel spared.
Of course natural disasters, unlike wars or terrorist attacks, do not choose their victims. They do not arise from the vicissitudes of history. Their collisions with human society are entirely coincidental, the toll they inflict utterly indiscriminate. Even epidemics, which rely on human vectors (and thus human behavior) to wreak their damage, have been periodic and wide-ranging for millennia. Anthropogenic global warming is well on its way to changing this paradigm, at least with regard to climatic systems like hurricanes and tornadoes. Even then, the relationship between instigator and victim is far murkier than in any politically or socially-motivated violence.
Yet this very disassociation from the trends of human history lends natural disasters a powerful ability to define their time. We confront their fundamental meaninglessness by invoking a host of explanations: acts of God, calls to action, meteorological outliers. It will be interesting to see if either the earthquake or Irene take their place as cultural touchstones, whether at Yale or beyond. It’s hard to imagine the Pax Romana without Vesuvius or the Bush presidency without Katrina. Will it be hard to imagine our 2011-’12 academic year without Irene?
Lest the comparison sound glib, let me be clear: I’m not equating magnitude. I’m talking about the way events entirely beyond anyone’s control come to be laden with meaning, with significance and symbolic baggage that is very much under our control. Many of us stocked up on storm rations we ultimately didn’t need; others remain without electricity, forced to fall back on the generosity of friends and colleges. Reading profiles of Irene’s victims in the New York Times, I was struck by how they chose to act amidst the chaos. Michael Kenwood, a first responder in New Jersey, died attempting to reach to a stranded car that ultimately proved to be empty; Ricky Webb in North Carolina was killed while caring for his horses. The juxtaposition of human agency — preparation, bravery, largesse — with the blind and inhuman force of the storm creates a powerful sense of our worth and responsibility. This can be positive, like when we admire Michael Kenwood’s selflessness; it can also be profoundly negative, like when the nation watched folly and incompetence compound the horror of Hurricane Katrina to a terrifying degree.
To be sure, similar stories can be told about wars or other manmade catastrophes. But there is a fundamental difference between the tangled interplay of personal destinies and the stark asymmetry of our confrontation with nature. Reducing World War II or the Civil War to a clear-cut moral obscures human complexity. But precisely due to their pure hazard, disasters suit themselves to archetype and myth. Facing their incomprehensible force and indiscriminate paths, we understand the limits of our power and the importance of our choice.
So perhaps it’s not entirely bad to begin the school year with a hurricane. For all the terror and inconvenience we faced, I wonder if Irene might allow us a chance at reflection more visceral than any orientation presentation or nostalgic reminiscence of Camp Yales past. Remembering how we weathered the storm, we gain perspective both on what lies entirely beyond our control, and how we might influence what lies within it.
Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College.