Collapsed House and Road, Japan

What words are there for something like this?  The power of the earthquake that struck Japan, the chaos it caused, seem beyond the ability of language to grasp.  Pictures and video convey some of what it means to be fragile bags of organic matter living on the skin of an earth that sometimes convulses.  But even they can’t make sense of it.  I suspect there’s no sense to be made, when it comes right down to it.  This is just geology, and it’s to be expected, and we do the best we can to hold on when the earth moves, then deal with the destruction left behind.  There’s no reason, no purpose, just a reality we have to live with.

So, all of you who’ve watched those doomsday earthquake programs on your teevees: this is what a megathrust earthquake looks like.  The plates slip, and the earth shakes so hard the whole planet moves, and an entire ocean is set in motion.  The only reason you won’t hear on the news that hundreds of thousands or millions of people died is because the Japanese were smart and looked into their future and realized that to live life on a subduction zone, you have to take some precautions.  So you can’t measure this disaster in the cost of human lives.  There were a lot of lives lost.  It could climb into the high thousands, the tens of thousands, before this is done, but because the Japanese looked into the future without flinching, and spent the money to harden themselves as a target, the lives lost won’t scale with the scope of this earthquake.  No, we’ll have to look at things like the fact an entire country got moved by several feet, or that entire coastlines got altered in an instant, wiped out, washed away, to see how truly enormous this is.

Had it happened here, you could have used human lives to scale it.  We in the northwestern bit of America haven’t hardened the target enough.  Can’t be bothered to spend the money or the political capital, can’t be bothered to face the future without flinching, would rather pretend it can’t happen here.  But oh, it can.  And it will.  The only question is when.  Today?  Tomorrow?  Next year, or decade, or century?  We don’t know.  Good Mother Earth probably gives us some warning when she’s about to lose her grip, but we don’t yet understand what she’s saying.  We’ll only know when the shaking starts, and by then it will be too late to build structures that can survive a megathrust earthquake, and to create the escape routes people will need when it’s time to move to high ground before the world has even stopped shaking.  Too late to mitigate the damage.  Too late.

So why live here? I asked myself as the tsunami rolled toward our shores and I had to face the fact that what had just happened half a world a way could just as easily been happening right here, right now, right this instant.

And the answer is that it’s worth the risk.  No guarantees anywhere.  No perfectly safe haven on this planet.  Maybe no subduction zone earthquake and tsunami in the interior of the continent, but other disasters await: drought, tornadoes, floods, fires, volcanoes, an out-of-control bus.  Nowhere on this earth am I guaranteed to live without catastrophe.  No place on the planet where something, whether natural or man-made, geological or biological, won’t be waiting to kill me.  So why not here?  Why not take this slightly higher risk in return for life in a fantastically beautiful place?  Why not?

It would just be nice if our building codes made the calculation of risk a little more friendly, is all.

In Japan, they prepared as best they could, and they’re people who know how to rise up from the ruins of a disaster and keep on going.  The country will never be the same.  But they’ll rescue the survivors, bury the dead, clean up the debris: they won’t give up, won’t give in to despair.  They’ll go on, they will, one of the most beautiful civilizations on the planet.  And after this is done, they’ll be a little bit more prepared for the next one, and if we’re wise, we’ll follow their example.

It’s just a catastrophe, is all. 

For those looking for good resources on the quake and its aftermath, Silver Fox has an excellent list o’ linksLockwood’s been collecting pictures, video, and has quite a few good thoughts on various matters.  Callan’s been on top of it from the first morning, not to mention the morning after, and has one of those read-it-or-else type of posts up on secondary effects.  Evelyn’s dad was kind enough to lend his expertise to the whole business of damaged nuclear reactors.  And Chris Rowan, of course, came through with one of his fantastic explanations of how the earth moved.  He’s like a geological medical examiner. 


Via Callan Bentley and many others, Christchurch moments after the earthquake struck:

That’s the dust of a city shaking apart.  Incredible.  If anyone finds out who took this, let me know so I can include proper credit.

Here’s another striking image, from friends of @monaeltahawy via a myriad of Twitter folk

All of this has put me very much in mind of the quote often attributed to Will Durant: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

Our own Chris Rowan was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor for an article on the quake.  And don’t forget to check out his post, which he’s keeping updated.

At least 75 dead so far, hundreds missing. A man took a walk through the ruins, and said more than perhaps anyone can about the aftermath.

Disasters are just that – disastrous.  But the survivors will ensure something whole and beautiful rises from the rubble.  In time.

World Coming Down

I’d meant to get the next Oregon Geology post up, but instead have spent the past several days watching in bemusement, sometimes in horror, as the world changes.

In Wisconsin, the Cons in control have rather overplayed their hand.  I’m proud of the Dems there who left the state to deny a quorum, and incredibly proud of the tens of thousands of citizens who continue to protest.  It’s not just about the unions, either – if you read that noxious budget, you’ll find plenty of gems like Walker & the Cons’ plans to sell off the state one piece at a time to corporations.  Keep this in mind as you watch Cons in other states rush to follow suit.  If you were one of those who fell for the “where are the jobs?” schtick, I hope you feel a proper fool just now.  The Cons are never about the jobs.  They’re about theocracy and oligarchy, and they’re about breaking the backs of the common folk.

Unfortunately for them, they’ve chosen this moment in time to step on ordinary people.  It might have gone more smoothly for them if, at this very moment, the entire Middle East hadn’t flared up, with citizens pouring into the streets to topple dictator after dictator, no matter the personal cost.  After Egypt, ordinary folk aren’t quite as willing to abide quietly under the heels of their masters.  I hate to tell the Cons this, but as complacent and submissive, as easily distracted by shiny things, as Americans can be, I don’t think this is a good time to be trampling all over women, workers, science, and – well, everybody except for their corporate masters and religious right ringleaders.  Libyans are still out there demanding regime change after getting slaughtered.  Something tells me Americans might be a little more willing to risk a bit of inconvenience to prevent the GOP from decimating the country, considering nothing they do to us could be quite as bad.  We’d be fools just to meekly accept their shit.

What I’m saying is: have your sleeping bags ready and sign-making materials to hand, my fellow Americans, because the time is coming soon when we, like our mates in Wisconsin, may find it necessary to camp out at capitols in order to make our wishes clear.  Surely we can manage that much. 

What’s happening in Libya is horrific.  The government there has turned its weapons of war on its own people.  I’m hoping the UN and the US government will get off their asses and put a stop to it, because there are people getting blown to bits out there.  I clicked on a link to a photo today and saw the results of a despot desperate to stay in power: bodies cut in half.  Do not click this link if you can’t stand the sight of blood, because the people in this photo were butchered.  I almost wish I hadn’t seen it.  But you know what?  I needed to.  It gave me perspective on many things.  It showed me the violence our country hasn’t even attempted to stop, and it told me just how fantastically brave these people are, that they’d risk this to demonstrate for their freedom.  It showed me how much freedom is worth.  And it showed me that we’ve got a ways to go before it gets this bad here, but more importantly, that we need to ensure it never does.

Those folks in the Middle East going out right now to put an end to too many years of autocrats and dictators, those folks who are finding the power of peaceful protest, who are taking their destinies in their hands not with terrorism, but with courage, are so incredible.  I don’t know what future they’ll build, but at least they’ve got the strength to build it for themselves.  I hope all of them succeed.  I’m in awe of them.

So there’s the political world, all shaken up and in places toppling over, sometimes inspiring and sometimes horrific.  But that’s not the only news that’s crossed my Twitter feed and left me reeling.  There’s also Christchurch, New Zealand, which got hit nearly dead-on with an earthquake.  Buildings are down, people dead, and it’s a reminder that we are not as much in control of the world as we might like to believe.  Two earthquakes there in less than twelve months – and likely aftershocks to come.  I know they’re strong folk and that they’ll manage to rebuild, but I feel for them.  It’s not easy, living at a plate boundary.  Days like this are tragic.

Really does seem like the world’s coming down.  I just hope a better one rises up.

Humanists Helping Haiti

I’m sure most of you have seen this on Pharyngula, but for the one or two folks who don’t hang on PZ’s every word, here’s the link for godless giving.  Your donation goes to Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross.  And now we have a nice central gathering spot for all those godless donations.

Meanwhile, the horror in Haiti keeps bringing out the burning stupid in people:

I heard a nice chat on the BBC World Service the other evening. Roger Heering was naturally very worried that the people of Haiti might have lost their ‘religious faith’ due to the recent unpleasantness, and he and a woman from a faithy charity group talked about it. ‘You might think this would undermine it,’ he said to her anxiously, but she was quick to reassure him. ‘It actually seems to have strengthened it,’ she said in a pleased tone. They hugged themselves in glee, and then Roger Heering turned to the sports.
But that’s interesting, isn’t it – having all the buildings fall down and tens of thousands of people die and tens of thousands more lying around screaming in agony is another point for God. Well if that’s the case, what would be a point against God then? What would God have to do to make everyone decide God was a shit? Not just letting children lie under a slab of concrete for hours and hours crying in pain and fear and misery and then die. So, what then? It’s frankly quite hard to think of anything. If that kind of thing goes in the credit column, it’s hard to think of anything that would be considered a demerit.

I guess we’re going to have to come up with a corollary to the IOKIYAR rule: IOKIYAG.  It’s okay if you’re a god.  Put it like this: if someone came to me with proof that god (any god) exists, and further proved that he’s omniscient and omnipotent as advertised, I’d no longer be an atheist – but I’d surely be telling them to shove the worship where the sun don’t shine.  Sadists and murderers aren’t worshiped round here, thankyewverymuch.

Meanwhile, back in reality, rescue crews are still finding the occasional survivor in the rubble – and not getting to other survivors in time.  Food is getting to survivors – but sometimes not.  Order and chaos still coexist amidst the stench of rotting flesh.  But help is flooding in.  Things may get much worse before they get better, but at least the world is reaching Haiti, and more help is on the way.

And President Obama did the right thing.  Undocumented Haitians in the United States now have Temporary Protected Status.  That’s on top of all the other right things he’s done, mind.  I am so very, very happy we have an adult in charge again.

Haiti: Help Slow in Coming

When you’ve had a major earthquake in a poor country, getting aid to the survivors in the disaster zone is a nightmare.  And while the world’s been focused on Port-au-Prince, there are a great many other towns that have been just as badly affected and are even more inaccessible.  Here’s just a small glimpse of the horror: patients abandoned as medical personnel are evacuated; bodies in mass graves, when they’re in graves at all.

And what’s the most useful thing Rep. Steve King thinks can be done?  He wants the U.S. to deport Haitians so they can be “relief workers.”

Meanwhile, Glenn Beck babbles about how President Obama’s rapid response is “dividing the nation.”  Only a total fucking batshit insane partisan fool thinks a swift, competent response to a major disaster is “divisive.”

Paging Roger Ebert: now that you’re done spanking Rush Limbaugh’s fat arse, maybe you can take on those two dumbshits. (h/t Chris)

The vast majority of my fellow Americans are kind, decent, and compassionate people.  Most of our current government is responding with competence and compassion.  Alas, when it comes to right-wing shitheels, it seems even a major tragedy isn’t enough to knock some decency into them.

Haitians still need our help, so if you haven’t had a chance to do so, please consider choosing a well-deserving organization from the list and sending some cash their way.

Haiti: Some Essential Reading

What a horrific situation.  Three days after the quake, relief is having a hard time finding its way into the country.  The port’s destroyed, the airstrip’s overwhelmed, and roads are impassable.  People are dying waiting for medical care, much less rescue.  It’s going to get worse before it gets better.  But damn, is it ever good to have an adult in charge of the American response.  Obama’s ensured that, even though this is a far more difficult disaster to deal with than Katrina was, not to mention the fact that Haiti’s not a U.S. city, our response is comprehensive, appropriate, and swift.  Well, aside from getting George W. “Heckuva Job” Bush on board with the relief efforts, but I understand that’s a PR move and Obama’s smart enough not to put him in charge of anything important.

The United States Air Force took over air traffic control responsibilities for the airport in Port-au-Prince, restoring some order amidst the chaos.  The airport’s handling three times the traffic it’s used to, and there are delays, but things are better than they were.  This allows search and rescue teams from various countries to get in and get to work.  Within a few days, the American military should have heavy equipment on the ground, start clearing blocked roads, and make it a lot easier to get aid in to the disaster zone.  And in the short term, we’ll be getting ships equipped with helicopters in to ferry supplies and personnel.  Some folks might complain the military hasn’t responded quickly enough.  Those folks can go hang – we’re talking about a massive rescue effort that has to be coordinated with a government that’s in shambles.  I’m surprised the response has been as rapid as it has been.

And no, the military can’t just invade a foreign country, not even for humanitarian reasons.  Especially not with our history.  Did you know that Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger both removed Haiti’s democratically-elected president in what basically amounted to coups?  And that’s not even the half of how the Western world has shit upon these people.  We have a bad history that goes back to the beginning of this country.  So, no, sending in a wave of American troops without coordinating with Haiti’s government probably wouldn’t be a great idea, no matter how noble the motives. 

Tragedy sometimes brings out the best in people.  Alas, it still doesn’t do that for Rush Limbaugh.  Forgive me the temptation to spike his cigar with Superglue.  Meanwhile, Faux News devoted a whole 7 minutes of evening programming to the tragedy.  It appears that interviewing Sarah Palin, trashing Jon Stewart, and plugging Scott Brown for Senate is far more important to them than covering one of the worst earthquake disasters to ever strike this hemisphere.

Our own George takes on “compassion tourism.”  Don’t even get me started on this.  I’m still seeing red.

But here’s something wonderful: folks have donated more than $7 million dollars via text message.  Here’s how you can bring it to $10 million:

  •  Text the word “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to the Red Cross.
  • Text the word “YELE” to 501501 to donate $5 to the Yele Haiti foundation.
  • Text the word “HAITI” to 20222 to donate $10 to the Clinton Foundation Haiti Relief Fund.
  • Text “HAITI” to 25383 to donate $5 to the International Rescue Committee.
  • Text “HAITI” to 85944 to donate $10 to the International Medical Corps.

And yes, all of the above are legit.  So you can give safely.  You can also hit up this list here, if you prefer to give through more traditional channels.

One of the most tragic things I read today was what Port-au-Prince resident Bellefleur Jean Heber said: “Haiti is an abandoned country….  People are relying on themselves.”

You’re not abandoned, Mr. Heber.  Help’s coming as fast as it can.  Rescuers from all over the world are  having a hard time getting through, but they’re going to be there for you soon.

We won’t forget you.

Thoughts on Haiti

I’ve got CNN on right now.  The Big Dog’s speaking, and it’s strangely calming.  I know why: he’s got a firm handle on what needs to be done, and he’s just calmly ticking off the list: helicopters, medical teams, search and rescue teams, earth-moving equipment.  Then things switch over to Anderson Cooper in Haiti, with people running and screaming in the background, screaming about water – a flood?  Water being handed out?  It gives a sense of the chaos and fear in the darkness there.

After a time, things settle.  People stop running.  

So: calm and chaos.  Desperation and hope.  That’s Haiti, right now.

Earlier, I watched a flyover video shot by the Coast Guard.  You’ll notice that some areas seem untouched, while others are completely flattened:

I could tell the geology of some of the zones just from the extent of the damage: toward the end of the video, you’ll see an area close to the sea where it seems every building is down.  Unconsolidated sediments or earth fill.  Something that turned to jelly when the ground began to shake.

Even in the areas of Port-au-Prince that look okay, a closer examination would show cracks in the buildings, structural damage so extreme that going inside could be a death sentence.  This city wasn’t built to withstand earthquakes.  It barely manages to stand on a good day.

We’ll never know how many people may have survived if Haiti had the resources to build solid structures.

Here’s my impossible dream: stop fighting and start building.  I can’t help but think of the resources put into war, and just how much better use those resources could be put to.  Lifting people out of crushing poverty.  Earthquake-proofing buildings in fault zones.  Bracing communities for other natural disasters.  And even after spending so much money on all that, there’d likely still be extra money left for things like curing diseases and developing alternative forms of energy. 

No, I know it’ll never happen.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t work for it.