From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam, we ask that God bless America.
But when natural disasters happen, weather events are sometimes called, in a legal sense, “acts of God.”
A loving God surely wouldn’t wish the devastation of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and droughts on poor mortals. But in the aftermath of Halloween and that wicked witch of the east named Sandy, the question is raised anew: manmade or natural?
Some scientists say the cause of this week’s superstorm is hard to prove, and may be some of both. But the climate sure acts like it’s changing.
“It seems to be related to human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels,” said Robert Shuster, chairman of the department of geography and geology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “If that is indeed the case, the only way to solve it is to not put gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”
Like a lot of people in the middle of the country with friends and relatives in the East, Shuster and I have personal reasons to be interested in the effects of Hurricane Sandy — in our cases, daughters living on the East Coast without power. His attends the University of Connecticut, and mine lives in lower Manhattan.
New Jersey was hit hardest, with sad photos of destruction giving a different view of reality than TV’s reality show “Jersey Shore,” let alone “Boardwalk Empire.” A section of the Atlantic City Boardwalk is gone.
Just about everyone loves the coasts. Living on them, though, carries a price.
“I hate to see people suffering and lose property,” Shuster said Wednesday. “But it’s a consequence of living on the shoreline. It’s like here in Omaha if you live on a flood plain. One of the things we learned last summer is that rivers flood. Natural events happen.”
Sea levels are rising. A federal report about global warming in 2000 warned about the risk of big storms and serious flooding in New York.
“The models predict,” the Omaha prof said, “that one of the consequences of the warming of the climate overall would be the melting of glacial ice at the north and south poles. That water has to go someplace.”
Climate change has received scant attention during this long presidential election campaign.
“As a scientist,” Shuster said, “I wish people would discuss things more openly. It would make me feel better about knowing who to vote for.”
He already has voted, though, and will spend Election Day in North Carolina at a long-scheduled meeting of the Geological Society of America. It will include sessions on climate change and special lectures on Hurricane Sandy.
The beautiful West Coast, too, is a cause for concern — because of tectonic stress.
With all the attention on Sandy, few noticed Sunday that a powerful magnitude-7.7 earthquake in the Pacific Ocean rattled the coast of Canada. It didn’t affect a populated area, but geologists took note.
As for the long-expected “big one” along California’s San Andreas Fault?
“It’s going to happen,” Shuster said. “It’s not a matter of whether it will happen, but when.”
Although you can never be totally prepared for it, he said, California has taken steps.
The 1989 quake in the San Francisco area resulted in fewer deaths than expected because of reinforced structures.
Back in New York, subway tunnels are flooded and street-level folks face gridlock. Some walked or biked to work. My daughter and son-in-law got to take showers at a hotel near Central Park because friends were visiting from Australia.
Georgio Papadakos, who was married in Omaha and owns Georgio’s Country Kitchen restaurant at 53rd Street and Ninth Avenue, told me Wednesday that his business was booming — partly to serve people who live in areas without power.
“We’re serving all of Manhattan,” he said Wednesday. “I haven’t been home (to Queens) in three days. I’m exhausted.”
Whatever its cause, Hurricane Sandy stomped the sandy shoreline and clogged the concrete canyons. Worse, it has caused injury and death. Recovering from this disaster will leave lots of people exhausted.
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