Saturday, March 23, 2013

Surviving the Wrath of Nature

Surviving a natural disaster has to do with much more than getting through the environmental, physical, and financial aspects of the disaster. The increased vulnerability that most people experience when they have faced extreme danger, death and physical injury, and the loss of their regular ways of life cannot be ignored. Such feelings of vulnerability almost always lead to immense levels of stress. And the effects—the emotional toll--of that stress can vary from person to person.

The recent heavy winter storms throughout the Midwest remind us of how vulnerable we humans are in the face of Mother Nature’s fury.  Weather extremes are not uncommon in the Great Plains and yet no matter how well-prepared we think we are, we continue to be surprised by how helpless we are in the face of nature’s sudden fury.

The extremes of Kansas weather are often exacerbated by heavy winds that only increase the storm’s fury. Heavy winter snows accompanied by high winds create drifts of six feet or more and the temperature can drop suddenly to 30 degrees below zero with a wind chill making it even colder.  The wind and snow are often so fierce that people can become lost within a few yards of their front doors.

But winter is not the only time the wind is vicious.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the settlement of the Great Plains provided the growing nation with agricultural riches and a bustling farm economy, but the rapid development of previously arid lands into massive wheat fields had a detrimental effect upon the land itself. Where buffalo grass had previously provided nutrients and kept the soil anchored to the ground, the newly plowed wheat fields left the soil exposed to the elements.  In the summer of 1934, with conditions worsened by a long drought, winds began to whip the sunbaked soil into thick, dark, low-riding clouds of dust. The dust clouds assaulted everything, destroying crops, killing livestock and suffocating farmers and their families.

Of course the most infamous of the killer winds is the tornado.  A tornado appears as a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground with whirling winds that can reach 300 miles per hour.  Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long.  Some tornadoes are clearly visible, while rain or nearby low-hanging clouds obscure others.  Occasionally, tornadoes develop so rapidly that little, if any advance warning is possible. The most destructive tornado in Kansas history smashed through Topeka on June 8, 1966. The storm cut a swath of ruin though the capital city, destroying hundreds of homes, causing millions of dollars in damage, and killing 16 residents.  It remains one of the costliest tornadoes on record.

A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest wildfires. Typically the state experiences most of its wildfires in March and April when ranchers are conducting controlled burns on the prairie.  Drought conditions and high winds make wild fires especially dangerous. When conditions green up in the summer and the humidity is higher, it lowers the chances.  Kansas Forest Service officials estimated that more than 41,000 acres were burned across the state in 2012 making it one of the worst years on record.

But killer winds are not the only way Mother Nature dispenses her fury.  Measured in terms of human suffering, tremendous losses in property, and extensive disruption of business activities, the July 1951 flood ranks as the greatest natural catastrophe in the history of the region.  The floods inn Kansas were caused by above-normal precipitation during May and June that caused some major flooding and established high streamflows, high ground-water levels and a minimum capacity for the soil to absorb any additional rainfall.

The heavy spring rains were followed by the great storm of July 9-13, 1951 that was centered near the common divide of the Kansas and Neosho River Basins.  Precipitation began during the afternoon of July 9 and continued through the morning of July 10.  Following a brief respite, the precipitation began again the evening of July 10 and continued through July 12.  Each day was characterized by excessive rainfall during the late afternoon and night with little or no rainfall during the early and mid-afternoon hours.  By midnight July 13, unprecedented total amounts of rain had fallen since the beginning of the storm.

Total damage from the flood was unparalleled. From the headwaters of the Kansas River to the mouth of the Missouri River at St. Louis, about 2 million acres were flooded. 45,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and 17 major bridges, some of them weighted with locomotives in an attempt to hold them, were washed away. Transportation was disrupted as highways and railroads were closed from days to weeks.  One of the more unusual damage reports came from LeRoy, Kansas where the Neosho River had washed caskets from graves at the cemetery.

It is quite normal for people to experience mild stress reactions to natural disasters like these for several days or weeks afterward. Often, initially, people will experience shock and denial in the first couple hours or days after the disaster. When shock occurs, people feel stunned or dazed. Denial means that they cannot acknowledge that a stressful situation has occurred or that they cannot experience the full intensity of what has happened. Both shock and denial are normal protective responses to the trauma of the disaster, which can be too much to absorb all at once.

After those initial reactions subside, people’s reactions can vary to a large extent. Often they may feel intense and unpredictable feelings, though sometimes feelings of anger and fear may be triggered by specific reminders of the natural disaster. Some people will have reactions immediately following the event and some will have delayed reactions. Some will recover quickly and some will have adverse effects for a long time. Though most people’s reactions will dissipate within a few weeks, as many as one in three survivors of natural disasters will experience more severe stress responses. Those responses can last for multiple weeks, months, or even years.

At some period, my family has weathered all of these natural disasters and they have left a lasting effect on each one of us.  It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit that we are able to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and do whatever it takes to move on, rebuild, or start over.

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