'Mankind despises randomness, often resorting to desperate measures to construct predictable patterns,' writes Dr Lucy Jones. Thankfully, centuries of scientific research ensures that we are far removed from the days when a volcano eruption, violent earthquake or extreme flood was chalked down as the angry behaviour of an omnipotent deity, perhaps in retaliation for the misbehaviour of humanity. But it's taken us a very long time to get here, as Dr Jones outlines in this informative look back at some of the most destructive and impactful natural disasters in human history.
Perhaps her most astute observation is focusing on specific people who have been disproportionally influential when these various tragedies have struck. She is very keen to applaud the efforts of, for example, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the 'de facto ruler of Portugal' who quickly and calmly led the rebuilding of Lisbon after the destructive earthquake of 1755 ('We bury the dead and feed the living,' being his simple plan), or Herbert Hoover – the ‘Great Humanitarian’ – who led flood relief efforts after the Mississippi broke its banks in 1927 (and later passed the pivotal 1928 Flood Control Act). Both these individuals prevented the dramatic actions of nature turning into a potentially far larger tragedy. On the other hand, the suffering of New Orleans due to mismanagement prior to and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina meant death tolls reached unnecessarily large scales. On reflection, natural disasters are only in part actually 'natural'.
"What is incredible is the immense scale of past disasters, yet simultaneously how quickly they are wiped from the collective memory"
The Lisbon disaster is barely known outside Portugal, despite being Europe's largest recorded earthquake, while few Californians could name the floods of 1861-62 as being the state's most destructive natural disaster, a time when the whole of Sacramento was underwater. Such forgetfulness can be deadly, if disaster prevention measures – be they strict building codes, strong levees and seawalls, or widespread tsunami warning systems – are allowed to fall into disrepair or fail to keep pace with growing populations. Jones’ final thoughts implore readers to engage with their communities and local leaders to prepare for when the worst happens, and accept the randomness which will dictate when that will be.