Charles Ebert on Disasters

(This column was first published in the November 30, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Once again this spring SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Charles H. V. Ebert will offer his Geography 201 course on disasters at the University at Buffalo. Ebert is a recognized expert in this unusual field and his textbook, Disasters: Violence of Nature and Threats by Man, is now in its 3rd edition. He is also a superb lecturer and his courses are always popular. Over 200 students have already enrolled.

    Like so many of us, 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 Vince Ebert for thirty years and recently, after reading his book, I took advantage of our friendship to discuss this subject with him. Here are some of his thoughts:

    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 their terrible misfortunes. (Journalists take advantage of these situations by pushing microphones in the faces of victims. Remarkably they often respond encouragingly: we're down now but we'll come back.) 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 terrible tragedy inflicted on an impoverished populace. The flooding has not only wiped out their crops but it has also washed away the soil needed for replanting and buried what soil remains under nutrient-deficient gravel. It has not only ruined their homes but it has destroyed the infrastructure of their country. Whole villages are isolated and starving and already 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 Weather Channel 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 itself 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. Yes, we have tornado alley, hurricanes, flooding and western volcanoes. But we have the infrastructure and the wealth with which to respond. And we are diversified. Countries with single crop economies like Honduras (bananas) and Guatemala (coffee) have no recourse when that crop is destroyed. When an earthquake or flood occurs in one of the United States, other sections of our country 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.

    Professor 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 too takes unwarranted risks. His home -- like mine -- is in a flood plane.

    I know one course I would elect if I were a UB undergraduate.