An uncomfortable juxtaposition

Ever since I was young, I’ve loved natural disasters. “Love” may not be the right word—I don’t love the death and destruction that is caused by disasters. For every volcano documentary I watch, or storm system I follow, I’m always aware of the heartache and damage that is being inflicted.

I recently finished reading Reed Timmers “Into the Storm”. In case you didn’t know, Reed Timmer is a meteorologist and extreme storm chaser whose obsession with tornadoes motivated him to start the site He also is one of the chasers featured on the Discovery Channel show Stormchasers. Early in the book, he acknowledges that an obsession with such a force of nature also means encountering the uncomfortable truth that they do real damage:

It’s an interesting proposition, seeking happiness from tornadoes. For those few of us who are unquestionably mesmerized by them, chasing tornadoes can be the most fantastic experience in the world. Tornado chasing taxes your intellect and puts you at one with incredible, spectacular forces of nature. Chasing is also a fix for any adrenaline junkie and, if you do it often enough, can become your career.

But an obsession with stalking tornadoes can kill or maim you, too, and even if chasing doesn’t leave you with physical scars or a need for crutches, it’s hard to escape unscathed. You’ll witness death and destruction of property that sickens your stomach and saddens your heart. Your family will worry about you. Significant others will grow tired of playing second fiddle. Peers will disagree with the way you chase, and you’ll lose friends to your obsession.

I’m not sure where my fascination with disasters started. I remember an inexperienced and oblivious babysitter taking my brother and I to see Twister when we were about 7 or 8…in other words, far too young! I had nightmares for months, but sometime in the next couple of years, my fear of such terrifying storms turned into a fascination. I figure it’s the same thing that propels my brother, who will barely venture into the ocean when we go to Florida, to sit religiously in front of the television during Shark Week.

 The older I get, the more I can hypothesize about what it is that propels me towards such brilliant displays of the earths power. In some part, I think it’s the reminder that there is something so much larger than us controlling this planet. I’m not talking about God or Higher Power (I can’t believe God would actively inflict destruction and sorrow like that) but about the weather and geologic systems that have existed since long before humans roamed the earth. Watching a supercell spawn a tornado or seeing the impact of an earthquake has a way of making us feel small, much in the same way that looking up at the stars, or down at the earth from an airplane, can make us feel small. It humbles me, and reminds me that as much as I like to pretend I have control over my life, most things are epically beyond my ability to change.

That being said, as a human being, I still have the intense desire to try. I’m fully aware that natural disasters disproportionately affect developing countries and lower-income families. I also know that there are many things that exacerbate disasters. After 6 months of my graduate program, the formula has been drilled into me deeper than an oil well: hazards + vulnerability = disaster. For centuries, humans have willingly placed themselves in harm’s way, by building cities and houses on flood plains, fault lines, or volcanoes. In some cases this has been the result of ignorance. In other cases, it’s because there are clear benefits to living in hazard zones: beautiful scenery, fertile soil, or cheap real-estate.

Fortunately, my interest in disasters has also made me aware of how many things can be done to prevent or protect against destruction: On an individual level, having an emergency kit and plan for your family will greatly increase chances of surviving a disaster. On a larger scale, encouraging cities and countries to have emergency plans, to enforce stronger building codes, and to invest more money in emergency preparedness and response.

It took me years to identify emergency management as a possible career path, but once I did, it made perfect sense. It combined my love of disasters will my desire to help people and save lives (and, let’s be honest, telling people what to do).

There’s a certain amount of guilt that comes along with this interest in disasters, and this post is, in some part, a way to rationalize that interest, as well as explain how I became interested in Emergency Management in the first place.


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