The Disasters We Don’t See Coming

The Rift by Walter J. Williams, Harper Torch/Eos, April 4, 2002, 932 pages

You need not read much about China to get your fill of the disasters that are waiting to befall the nation. The government is doing all it can to prepare for calamity, but what we all know down deep inside – but never talk about – is that preparation is beyond the government. If Hurricane Katrina taught us anything, it is that even the U.S. government never adequately prepares for the dangers they know.

All the more so the dangers that lie hidden in memory.

Life along Old Man River – the Mississippi/Missouri river complex that bisects the United States – is focused on the water. People worry about the floods that imperil the region on a painfully regular basis, and on the occasional hurricanes that roar up the river from the gulf of Mexico.

But dormant beneath the heart of that region lies an earthquake fault which, when it last twitched in 1812, produced the most massive series of earthquakes in recorded history on the lower 48 states. Those tremors, collectively called the New Madrid earthquakes for the town in southern Missouri near the epicenter, shook a half-million square miles. At the time, the region was sparsely populated, and the human effects were moderate, but the quakes changed the course of the Mississippi River and the geography of Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

Here is the kicker: the fault, known to geologists as the Reelfoot Rift, has a 90% chance of delivering a magnitude 7 or stronger quake in the next 50 years. And the region – the nation – is painfully unprepared for such a cataclysm.

What would happen the next time is the subject that drives Walter Williams’ superb and epic novel The Rift. Told entertainingly around the stories of characters that parallel those in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn,The Rift delivers a picture of the worlds most prosperous nation brought to its knees by a sucker-punch disaster it should have seen coming.

Quakes followed by floods when levies broke, followed by toxic disasters, building collapses, nuclear emergency, systemic breakdown, civil unrest, and worse. It was a compound disaster, a confIuence of horrors that Williams made all too real. I couldn’t put it down.

And when I turned the last page, I thought about China.

For all of the derision we heap atop the Department of Homeland Security, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the collective governments of New Orleans, Louisiana, Mississippi, and George Bush for their mishandling of the preparations for and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we have to believe that somehow the US government is far better prepared to alleviate human suffering in the wake of calamity that the Chinese government.

And those of us living in China have to hope we are wrong, hope that the Chinese watched the effects of Katrina, the tsunami, and similar natural system perturbations and took some hard lessons.