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The Polichick: We Can’t Prevent Natural Disasters, But What About Man-Made Disasters?

Over my spring break travels, I was lucky enough to tag along on a trip to the island Virgin Gorda – one member of the British Virgin Islands. With plenty of sunshine and seafood, and no cell phone service, what could be a better break from reality? Not much.

On an idle morning stroll leaving breakfast with full bellies, my boyfriend and I noticed a siren going off in the distance. Giving each other quizzical looks, wondering what it could possibly be, an older gentleman walking the other way cleared up the mystery:

“It’s a tsunami siren.” He continued down the path without a care in the world.

What? A tsunami siren? In the Caribbean? No… really? We both nervously eyed the nearby ocean to see if the water was giving any tell-tale signs, and then both nervously eyed what high-ground we should head for if a tsunami actually was imminent. Each of us agreed that it would be in our best interest not to tell his mother just then – otherwise hearsay would quickly transform into hysteria.

I later asked a staff member at the hotel what the siren was. He vaguely replied: “Oh it twas nothin’, just a little reminda for us,” in a lullaby-like Carib dialect. However, he did not say that it was not a tsunami siren. My concern was still piqued.

The geographic location of Virgin Gorda is prone to seismological activity. Activity that is so frequent, for that matter, that the hotel makes a brief note about it in its handbook – something along the lines of “Don’t be alarmed if you feel an earthquake, it’s nothing new.” What ?!? An earthquake is new to me! And with the horrible visions of the record-breaking earthquake that rocked Japan, and then the subsequent tsunami that ruined much of the country, how could I not freak out?

I poked further, not satisfied with the mystery, and discovered that on March 23, 2011, 33 countries of the Caribbean carried out a tsunami drill – in which sirens planted around the islands simulated an exercise where there were only seven minutes to get to higher ground. The drill turned out to be a success for the British Virgin islands, but highlighted major weaknesses for other participating governments.

It makes me wonder – how prepared can you be for the worst to happen, when you never really expect it to happen to you? And can we depend on our communities, our infrastructure, our government, our country to respond to such a disaster? Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster that we, as a country, failed for ourselves. Now, FEMA and the Bush 2 Administration certainly made egregious errors in failing to declare an all-inclusive state of emergency for New Orleans’ coastline parishes. But, it was a natural disaster – one that man could not have caused, but only had the resources to respond to the ruin afterwards.

What about a man-made disaster that threatens thousands of lives, of communities, of economies, of countries? While the threat of nuclear meltdown present now and lingering in the future comes to my mind, what also comes to mind is the BP oil spill that happened on April 10, 2010 – just one short year ago. Not only were eleven employees on the oil rig’s killed in the explosion, but that deepwater-well leaked for over three months. The damage on Gulf environment and the people and communities that depend on its fisheries and its tourism, was exorbitant. What an unthinkable pitfall mankind could make to shoot itself in the hypothetical foot! The sickening nightly coverage of that unforeseeable nightmare still makes my stomach turn in a knot. The spill provoked conversations about the need for green and clean energy sources. It seemed as though out of great tragedy something good would be born.

Out of an event like that, one that we as humans cause, the fundamental lesson is don’t make the same mistake twice. So to my surprise, I see today in the New York Times that BP Oil officials have applied to the United States Government to resume deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. It seemed almost too absurd to process at first. It is no April Fools Joke.

The fact of the matter is that this demonstrates a serious endangerment of common sense in the world. For natural disasters, the events are so unpredictable and unthinkable, we can only be prepared so far as acknowledging the worst: a tsunami might hit the Caribbean, a wildfire might burn your house down, flooding could desperately harm your community. But man-made disasters, although equally as unpredictable as the natural kind, are ones that can at least be avoided by not repeating history. When things go wrong, you learn from it – has that not been one of the pillars of growing up?

Yes, we are only human. But this is our world too. It is our generation’s world, and our successors’, and it seems like time to take ownership of it. And while it can be humorous to deal with someone else’s mistakes – the bottom line is that our failure to say otherwise makes us just as stupid.

In the end, that tsunami siren was a good reminder for me after all, just as the hotel staff member said. Not that the media’s coverage of international suffering and disaster is not a good reminder to me, but that reality works differently when plucked and dropped into a position I mostly witness for people thousands of miles away. Each of us is a part of a world so much larger and more interconnected than we ever imagine.

We don’t need a superhero to save the world. We just need ourselves with a whopping dash of street smarts.

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