Wednesday, June 19, 2013

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Fault, Fellow Citizens.....

I have lived in the upper midwest for many decades,
but I cannot remember a spring season like the one now
coming to an end. Temperatures have been low, the sun
has rarely appeared, and rainfall (while not unusually
heavy) has been very frequent. Some have quipped
that the Twin Cities are the new Seattle or Portland.

Yet this wet and cloudy spring is no match for what
happened throughout the U.S. midwest, particularly in
the Minnesota River Valley from Iowa to Louisiana, in
1927 when it rained almost every day over a large area
in the midwest for months, and produced a flood of biblical
proportions. It was the largest natural disaster in the
history of the United States to then, and still dwarfs
recent disasters. Only hundreds of persons died in this
flood (the actual count is unknown), but the damage and
dislocation of many millions of persons stands as the
greatest disaster in the nation’s history, and its political and
demographic impact was momentous, reverberating even
to the present day.

Most who read this have not even heard of this disaster, huge
as it was. In today’s dollars, the cost would be hundreds of
billions, perhaps more. Major cities were under water for
extended periods. Evacuations were massive, and the nation's
first concentration camps (for black Americans) were
established 15 years before the Nisei camps were created for
Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Of lasting impact, a
federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, assumed
new and far-reaching federal powers over the states involved.
Because of their treatment by government authorities,
hundreds of thousands of black Americans (almost all of
them descendants of slaves) who lived in the Mississippi
River Valley soon emigrated north to the industrial cities of
Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, etc., changing the
American urban and economic landscape forever.

Ironically, the presumption of new federal authority over the
states did not occur during the administration of liberal Franklin
Roosevelt (who took office 6 years later), but under on one of
the most conservative presidents of the 20th century, Calvin
Coolidge. Although this disaster dominated national
newspaper headlines (radio had not come into its full
impact yet, and there was no television) for a year, President
Coolidge did not once visit the area personally, something
unthinkable today. He did, however, appoint his secretary
of commerce, a veteran of World War I relief efforts, to
oversee relief efforts in the flood area. That man, as a
result, became president of the U.S. himself one year later.
His name? Herbert Hoover.

It’s an extraordinary saga, and for the reader who wants to
learn more about it, the book Rising Tide by John M.
Barry provides a full and fascinating account, populated
with fabulous characters (including the young Huey Long)
and incredible stories.

We have all read for years about the southern California
earthquake faults, the many quakes that occur there
periodically, and the dire predictions of a “big one” that
might yet occur. Less well known, is the Cascadia subduction
zone (also known as the Cascadia Fault) which runs offshore
from northern California to British Columbia in Canada.

On January 26, 1700, about 9 p.m., a massive earthquake
occurred on this fault which caused huge tsunamis that
reached as far as Japan. There are in fact more records of
this earthquake in Japan (the tsunamis there were “orphan
tsunamis” because the quake itself was so far away it was
not felt by the Japanese) than in the then British, French
and Spanish colonies on this side of the Pacific Ocean
(since so very few non-native Americans were in the area
at the time). Only recently, thanks to some University of
Pennsylvania geologists, has it been possible to understand
the enormous impact of this earthquake on the U.S. and
Canadian west coast. That earthquake probably exceeded
9.0 on the Richter Scale (1000 times the energy of a 7.0 
temblor). Based on this and other studies of previous
Cascadia Fault earthquakes, geologists predict another
9.0-plus event there every 300-500 years. The 1700 quake
was 413 years ago. Major cities that would be impacted
include Sacramento, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, not
to mention the millions of residents outside these cities.

In spite of the story (and, of course, the movie with Judy
Garland) “The Wizard of Oz,” I don’t remember the kind of
tornado activity in the U.S. that has occurred in recent years.
Not only massive clusters of tornados across the midwest
and south, but like the one which recently set down in
Oklahoma, tornados of historic great size.

Then there are the asteroids which pass near the earth.

Before the reader thinks the author is a castastrophobe,
let me say that titanic natural disasters, in fact, happen
very rarely, and that I fervently hope that any current
predictions of earthquakes, etc., are not realized at any

But I do want to make the point that despite our recent
inclinations to make a mess of our human civilization,
and the persistence of war, persecution, prejudice,
totalitarianism, and other human depravities, we are
incalculably tiny players in the cosmos compared to
those forces of nature beyond our control.

It’s the stars’ fault, fellow readers, and we are “hitched” to
one of them.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman, All rights reserved.

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