Urban myths

For Halloween and All Saints I blogged some lists.  It may seem that I’m in a rut.  I love lists, don’t you?  No?

But I am only using a list as a kind of rhetorical smokescreen.  This time the list is presented without any preamble.  You’re invited to discern the common element in each example.

Chicago fire

Image from the Chicago fire of 1871

1) One of the great stories of Ancient Rome is the story of the Great Fire of AD 64.  It’s the fire when Nero supposedly fiddled: but of course there were no fiddles at the time.  Nero may indeed have played a musical instrument such as a lyre.  That legend concerns me less than the fact that fire could devastate a city.  London would later have a great fire in the 17th century, as would Chicago in the 19th Century.

2) There are worse things than pure cold or pure heat.  In 1998 parts of Ontario, Quebec and areas further east in the USA & Canada were subjected to an ongoing barrage of freezing rain followed by cold temperatures.  Large amounts of ice accumulated on wires carrying power, causing them to either break or the supporting structures to collapse.  While the events were hugely educational for utility professionals in the area, at the time it was an unprecedented disaster.

3) In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the destructive storm surge over the protective levees led to enormous destruction & loss of life in the New Orleans area.

4) A tsunami in March 2011 was followed by what has come to be known as the “Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster”.  The flooding and destruction of earthquake & tsunami undermined the safety devices in the reactors, although in the end the disaster was not as extreme as Chernobyl.  The impact on Japan is not inconsiderable.

5) The news this past week on CNN is alternating between two big stories:

  • The American election
  • The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York, New Jersey & elsewhere.

And Sandy is really several stories, but I am especially intrigued by

  • The fragility of Manhattan, a place I love to visit.
  • Disruptions to the NYC transit & transportation infrastructure
  • The impact on the American economy, which at least partially understands New York City as an economic engine

Disasters are nothing new.  At different times, people have lived in precarious, unsustainable situations.  Are we making progress?  To anyone in New Orleans that may seem dubious.  Our civilizations are a series of promises.  From time to time we discover that the promises are empty: in a time of natural calamity.   Fire, power failure, flood, melt-down, it doesn’t really matter what circumstances expose the fragility of the underlying infrastructure.  We build to create safety, and then, we may become so self-assured about our progress that we come to take our safety & comfort for granted, assumptions that are shown to be foolish when nature assaults the city and its supporting networks.

If climate change means anything, it probably means an increase in the severity of weather events.  Cities hold out the promise of a kind of safety in the face of Nature’s fury.  But while our safety seems to increase with each generation, perhaps that is just a perception.  Such promises are never absolute.

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