Opinion » The Rant

Planning for Disaster

When (not if) it comes time for the nation to #prayformemphis, how ready will we be?

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My house has been burglarized twice since we moved in nine years ago. Both times, someone came home and foiled the would-be thieves, so all they stole was our time. The first time, a bike was left behind, resulting in a net gain for us. But I still felt violated. Home is supposed to be a safe place. Someone had entered that place without my permission. But, in his search for "stuff" — electronics, cash, jewelry, and weapons — he tossed aside and stepped over everything that was irreplaceable.

We cleaned up the mess, got a security system, and carried on with our lives.

Imagine that feeling of vulnerability and trespass multiplied by a thousand. Because a natural disaster is not so scrupulous. Trees fall where the wind directs them. Water doesn't use your pillowcase as a trick-or-treat bag to fill with jewelry or stack your laptops and televisions at the door. Fire doesn't seek out the stuff it can pawn, leaving your record collection and your kid's kindergarten artwork untouched. Nature's furies rush in, often without warning, taking everything right down to the drywall and leaving a pile of trash where all your stuff used to be.

Hurricane Harvey's victims prepared the best they could, but the storm was stronger. Some grabbed what they could carry and hurried to dry shelter. Others were rescued by kind strangers in boats. They didn't have enough medicine or food. They left their pets behind, praying that instincts and an open bag of kibble on the kitchen counter would be enough.

As I watched the destruction unfold on the news, all I could think about was the smell. As the water recedes, people will be able to return to their homes, to be greeted by a smell that will never leave. In New Orleans, it was a potion of mold and dust bonded by Lake Pontchartrain funk and late-August Gulf Coast humidity. I imagine it's not much different in Houston; maybe swap rainwater for lakewater. They tell you to wear a respirator, the kind that looks like a gas mask. It doesn't help. The stink implants itself in the follicles of your nostrils, so for the rest of your life the faintest whiff of mildew takes you right back to that place, that moment.

Hurricane Harvey - AFPPHOTOGRAPHY | DREAMSTIME
  • AFPPhotography | Dreamstime
  • Hurricane Harvey

Just a little souvenir from Mother Nature to remind you she's not screwing around.

A "storm door" won't keep her out but it's so adorable that you tried. Water and air, elements we need to survive, can be used against us in cruel and spiteful ways.

Harvey, Katrina, Sandy, and others inevitably exposed infrastructural flaws that reveal our hubris and failure to plan for the worst-case scenario. How often do we hear "unprecedented" or "more than anticipated" in the context of these tragedies? The breach of the levees, not the hurricane, were the primary cause of damage in New Orleans. During Superstorm Sandy, flooding rendered New York City's subways inoperable. One station just reopened this summer, five years later. When (not if) it comes time for the nation to #prayformemphis, how ready will we be?

Memphis isn't a coastal city, so hurricane season brings little more than a few days' worth of relentless downpours and wind. However, there is the matter of the New Madrid seismic zone, which apparently has remained quiet long enough for people to forget about it. In 1990, as an elementary schooler, I was reassured that despite what I'd heard, earthquakes were unpredictable and I would be going to school on December 3rd. Nothing puts a child's mind at ease like explaining that the movement of tectonic plates can cause the ground to shake without warning, am I right? Mercifully, Iben Browning turned out to be a nutjob, but we still practiced cowering under our desks just in case.

Maybe I'm paranoid, but the fact remains: There is no "earthquake season." Tornadoes can happen year-round too, as long as the conditions are right.

So as we offer our support to the people in Texas, it's also a good time to take inventory. Do you know where you would go if you were forced to evacuate? Do you remember what you're supposed to do during a tornado (hide in a bathtub) or an earthquake (drop, cover, and hold)? Do you know important phone numbers by heart? Where are your (and your children's) birth certificate, social security card, passport, immigration papers, insurance cards? Do you have pet carriers? Do you know your neighbors? Because nature isn't going to wait around while you get your stuff together, and these disasters of so-called "biblical proportions" seem to happen more and more frequently.

Jen Clarke is a digital marketing specialist and an unapologetic Memphian.

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