Monday, February 06, 2006

Little tsunami

We had a short-lived tsunami warning this morning. A complete false alarm, but it lasted long enough to send the reporters at my office into a frenzy and release a steady stream of cars into town as they raced to get off the Homer Spit. Little earthquakes, little volcanoes ... does it end? Or do we just learn to live with it, like we learned to live with freezing rain and Kelly Clarkson, letting the threat sink into our lives until we scarcely realize how unnerving it should be?

I'm still haunted by a night Geoff and I spent bicycle camping in a little park in Chester, Illinois. Swirling clouds gathered in the Midwestern sky as blasts of hurricane-force wind tore through the deserted park, ripping down tree limbs and blowing through the rickety public restroom structure - the only building within sight. I sat in a "covered" picnic area, both arms stretched across a Rand McNally map to hold it down, my weather radio turned to high volume against the howling wind. Scratchy reports of tornado warnings (warnings, not watches, meaning tornados were imminent or were already happening) came in for nearby counties. Approaching counties. Then, finally, my county.

I remember being locked in a frozen sort of panic. Where would I go? What would I do? My best effort on a bicycle - even surging adrenaline - might reach oh, 35 mph. Maybe 40 with the wind behind me, although you'd have to knock off another 5 for the panic factor. Either way, not really enough to outrun shrapnel being shot out of a swirling vortex. So there I sat in the vertical rain, subdued by my powerlessness, and wondering how much better off I'd be if I just kept the stupid radio turned off in the first place. After all, the warnings only go as far as you can.

Not that I'm saying it's bad to have a good tsunami warning system in place - it's definitely better to create a little false hysteria than to risk loss of life. But it seems to also be true that we pay for this vigilance with increasing levels of elevated fear, even though the overwhelming majority of us will never encounter a catastrophic natural disaster. Still, some of us will. And I guess awareness is the price we pay for knowledge.