Once again this spring, Charles H.V. Ebert, SUNY distinguished teaching professor, will offer his Geography 201 course on disasters at the State University at Buffalo.
Ebert is a recognized expert in this unusual field and his textbook, "Disasters: Violence of Nature and Threats by Man," is in its third edition.
He also is a superb lecturer and his courses are always popular. More than 200 students have enrolled.
Like so many people, I find myself drawn to disasters. I watch TV specials about floods, tsunamis (tidal waves) and volcanoes. I pore over newspaper stories about plane crashes. I sit through those awful movies about tornadoes and earthquakes, and I track the latest hurricane on the Weather Channel.
I have known Ebert for 30 years and recently, after reading his book, I discussed the subject of disasters with him. Following are his thoughts on varied topics:
On our attraction to disasters -- "There but for the grace of God go I."
On the positive side, we have empathy for those who are devastated and we admire those who don't give up in the face of terrible misfortune. On the other hand, some of us exhibit a morbid, or even sadistic, fascination with disasters and our response is shallow and temporal. We forget yesterday's news at the very time when people most need assistance.
On Honduras -- a tragedy inflicted on an impoverished populace. The flooding has not only wiped out their crops, but washed away the soil needed for replanting and buried what soil remains under nutrient-deficient gravel. It ruined homes and destroyed the country's infrastructure. Whole villages are isolated and starving, and existing poor health conditions are worsening rapidly. The aid we are giving this neighbor is woefully inadequate.
On disasters waiting to happen -- prediction is where we are making our greatest strides. Our ability to provide early warning -- he cites the Weather Channel's storm tracking as an example -- has increased tremendously, but we must continue to improve. He bends a pencil and listens for the sound of the first fibers breaking before the pencil snaps. We need to become increasingly sensitive to such indications, and improved earthquake warnings are an example of one of these needs.
On the United States as particularly prone to disasters -- we have tornado alley, hurricanes, flooding and western volcanoes, but we also have the infrastructure and the wealth with which to rebound. And we are diversified. Countries with single-crop economies -- such as Honduras (bananas) and Guatemala (coffee) -- have no recourse when that crop is destroyed. When an earthquake or flood occurs in one of the states, other sections of the U.S. take up the slack.
On human-made disasters -- we are upset by a hurricane that kills dozens of people or an earthquake that kills hundreds or thousands, but modern wars kill hundreds of thousands, even millions. We withdraw when atrocities are committed on a few soldiers in Somalia, leaving a whole population to be suppressed or destroyed. Humankind needs to get its priorities straight.
Ebert is especially concerned with responses to disasters and he has participated in follow-up activities in such places as Managua, Nicaragua, and Kobe, Japan. But, he says, he also takes unwarranted risks. His home -- like mine -- is on a flood plain.
I know one course I would elect to take if I were a UB undergraduate.