THE scale of the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma, following so quickly on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, is startling.
Despite the carnage and tremendous human suffering, one aspect of the catastrophe deserves particular consideration, especially in a small, peripheral country where every city is built on an estuary.
The government-ordered evacuation of more than seven million people — more than the population of the island of Ireland — is a sobering reminder of humanity’s subsidiary place in the grand scheme of things. Irma’s threat was so great that an official warned that staying on the low-lying coral cay islands off Florida’s south coast, was “almost like suicide”. We may imagine ourselves the master species but we still play second fiddle to forces we cannot control but do influence, even if in a way we do not completely understand.
The pack-up-and-run edict certainly offers lessons relevant even in a country that does not usually have to face hurricanes. What goes through your head when the order to evacuate is issued? What can we bring? How long will we be gone? What will we come back to? Will I still have a job and an income? Can we rely on the insurance company? How long before power is restored? How will the children cope? Where will we go? We certainly would not all fit in Athlone.
Those questions must play on the mind of those trying to outrun Irma. Some may even question why 49% of them voted for a president who denies climate collapse. The other 47.8% may wonder if the Earth still looks flat to President Trump this morning. Those are just a few questions but there are many more.
One must be, and it challenges our Anglocentric bubble, must be why does such a relatively moderate event get such attention? After all, something around 40m people in South Asia are struggling to rebuild their lives after massive floods devastated the region nearly a month ago. Villages in Bangladesh, India and Nepal have been under water since mid-August. In Bangladesh, more than eight million people were affected. Many families struggled to bury their dead because there is no dry land. These are that region’s worst floods in 40 years, with 1m of rain falling in some areas in the space of days. Shocking though Irma may be this is destruction of an entirely different order.
Ireland’s temperate climate means we do not prepare for such extremes. Nature’s random indulgence is not without consequences. Our efforts to prevent normal flooding are
at best piecemeal; our efforts to prepare for anticipated but unprecedented flooding are in the same category as the decision made by those who chose to stay on Florida’s cay islands — suicidal. Our temperate climate may also be behind our immoral refusal to face our climate collapse obligations properly, though blinkered greed plays a part too.
The people of South Asia, Texas and Florida are trying to cope but their tragedies should be our lessons. As was recognised in a different context, this is too good a crisis to waste. As is usual, there is an old Irish phrase that encapsulates the position perfectly: Ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scolb.
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