Coping With Catastrophe
No place on Earth is perfectly safe. Often there's no way to know where and when natural disasters will occur, and no way to prevent them. But, around the world, millions of people live in danger zones. From Asian island dwellers who live in the shadows of active volcanoes, to Californians perched on top of earthquake-prone faults, to Caribbean fishermen moored to coastlines regularly ravaged by deadly storms, millions of people seem to invite catastrophe.
Why would people choose to put themselves in the path of a natural disaster? Not all those who live in a danger zone understand what may be in store for them. The residents of the Bay Area knew long before last October that they lived in earthquake country. But they coped with the threat by denying the danger really existed.
Sense Of Control
Danger-zone dwellers who are aware of the threat they face try a variety of methods — from primitive religious rituals to space-age scientific techniques — to give themselves a sense of control over the often uncontrollable forces of nature.
On the island of Java, Indonesia, an ancient people called the Tenggerese live on the slopes of active volcanoes. Although eruptions are frequent, the soil surrounding the volcanoes is among the world's most fertile. Faced with the alternative of living elsewhere in overcrowded and impoverished Java, the Tenggerese stubbornly cling to farming the volcanic soil. They make offerings of fruit and flowers that they hope will calm the volcano gods and keep them from hungering for human lives.
Every day on another active volcano on the other side of the world, Colombian geologists practice a different kind of ritual designed to avoid the wrath of the volcano gods. As the sun rises over Mt. Nevada del Ruiz, technicians aim a distance-measuring laser at reflectors mounted at 32 strategic spots on the volcano. Four years ago, Nevada del Ruiz's eruption triggered deadly mudslides that buried 25,000 Columbians alive. Now, scientists are determined to predict a shift in the volcano's surface that would signal an upcoming eruption.
In some of the world's poorest and most dangerous regions, daily life is itself a disaster. And no special strategies exist to avoid unexpected tragedies. Bangladesh's Meghna River Delta is one such place. Each year, when torrential storms roar in from the Bay of Bengal, thousands lose their fields, their homes, and sometimes, their lives.
Still, for Bangladeshis like 16-year-old Sheheda Begum, any piece of fertile land is a blessing in a country plagued by periodic famine. "At least with this land, my family has a chance to survive," Sheheda says. "If it washes away, and we are still alive, we will stay here and start over. That is our destiny. We are poor people and we have no choice."
Adapted from Scholastic Update, December 15, 1993.