If a tree falls outside our orbit…

This week, every meteorologist with an L.L. Bean rain slicker and travel budget headed to the Gulf to experience Hurricane Isaac up close and personal.  Countless millions of dollars were expended in relating the information that yes, the coast was getting wet. There was some wind involved, too. See how we can barely stand up in this driving rain? We’re doing this for you, America.

The heavy attention paid to such events has long made me wonder. Much like a tree that falls in the woods that no one is around to hear, what happens when a catastrophe occurs far from any major media center? Is it less important than something equally horrific occurring someplace like New York or L.A.? Is a tornado that hits Ames, Iowa less important than one in Atlanta? Is a catastrophe that kills 100 Americans roughly equivalent to one that kills a thousand people elsewhere? What is the official death ratio?

Twelve years ago, I was with a group in Nicaragua helping build houses in the wake of a hurricane and flood on the shore of Lake Nicaragua.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch, a slow-moving Category 5, dumped so much rain on Central America that 11,000 people died. Nearly three million people were left homeless. How many of us remember it? I had only a vague memory.

Late one night, a couple of days before we were set to leave the country, two earthquakes struck. The epicenter was about fifteen miles from our location. The quakes were relatively small in size (5.9 and 5.2). But in a country where so many buildings and homes are structurally weak to begin with, it didn’t take much shaking to cause destruction. Buildings fell. People were killed. Thousands of Nicaraguans were left homeless.

Our group was a bit frazzled by lack of sleep and frequent ground shaking, but nothing compared to the fears of the locals. Deep worry showed on their faces with each new tremor–and there were dozens. The local radio station, which we listened to on a crank-style radio, kept us informed with frequent updates on destruction and injuries. In Granada, which is a 500-year-old city with beautiful colonial Spanish architecture, many residents had slept outside on the streets, fearful that their homes would collapse while they were in bed. Masonry from centuries-old churches littered sidewalks.

When you’re in the middle of something like that, you assume the entire world is focused on your situation. We knew our loved ones back home would be worried about us. Yet, we had no easy way to contact them until we reached the capital of Managua, the evening before our flight back to the States. We each placed very quick phone calls to our families to let them know we were safe and not to worry. We need not have bothered. Most of our families didn’t know what had occurred. The earthquakes had received a five-second mention on CNN.

Is a tragedy that occurs somewhere else as bad as one that happens on our doorstep? Don’t know. But I might write a book about it.

One thought on “If a tree falls outside our orbit…

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