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Spectator at the Disaster

Nature in violent action can be spectacle, tragedy and object of scientific wonder all at once

John Dvorak

Disaster Psychology

Years ago, during an informal discussion about earthquakes and how they should be studied, I commented to colleagues that instead of adding yet another seismologist or geologist or geodesist to the group, adding a psychologist would make more sense. One of the major goals of the Earthquake Hazards Program is to keep the public informed about the perils associated with such events. It seemed to me imperative that we, as scientists, understand how the public will react to the sort of information we might be called upon to provide—potentially terrifying information about imminent cataclysms. My suggestion was met with blank stares.

I have also suggested that once the prediction of earthquakes becomes commonplace—and I think it is inevitable that, someday, earthquake prediction will be on par with forecasting the path and strength of hurricanes, if not rising to the certainty of predicting the tides—that contingency plans will have to be made for the crowds that will assemble in the forecasted epicentral area to feel the ground shake.

Bear with me on this. I had an experience years ago that is pertinent to this question.

It happened on the Nevada desert back in the days when underground nuclear tests were still conducted. Whenever such a test was scheduled, an army of graduate students was sent out across the desert to station ourselves at regular intervals along a line that ran radially away from the blast. (The point of the exercise was to study the structure of the Earth’s crust.) Each of us was equipped with a portable seismograph to record the precise time the initial ground shaking arrived from the blast. For one test, I was lucky and drew the lot that put me second closest to the detonation.

I arrived at my assigned position early in the morning. I knew the exact second when the ground would start to vibrate. And I knew the direction the wave would come from. With five minutes to go, I made sure I was standing on firm ground and facing in that direction.

A minute before the wave was scheduled to arrive, I remember feeling a surge of adrenaline rush through my body. Then, with a moment to go, I saw the ground rippling on the distant horizon. In less than a breath, the wave had passed under me. I could distinctly feel the pulses running up my legs and through my body. The whole experience lasted barely a second. I turned after the wave passed me and watched it disappear over the other horizon.

In the vernacular of my generation, it was better than an E ticket at Disneyland.

From that experience, I feel justified in predicting that there will be professional and amateur earthquake chasers. Droves of people will flock to any area that is predicted to have a major earthquake, arriving by whatever means required to be there at the appointed time. It will be much as it is today when crowds of people gather along the strip of land that the moon’s shadow follows during a total solar eclipse. Travel agencies will book tours to “Ride the Earth’s Crust.” Hawkers will sell T-shirts and commemorative plates.

From a different perspective, people who already live in seismic zones will be better prepared than any group before them for the strong shaking that is about to come.

Such a world is in the future. How far ahead, I do not know. In the meantime, I struggle with the dilemma of the “properly constituted geologist.” I desperately want more experience of the great forces of nature. I want to hear the acoustically epic roar of the rupturing crust, of the ocean emptying from its basin and then returning. Yet I cannot sincerely wish for it, because I know, as perhaps only geologists and the victims of natural cataclysms do, how much human suffering is mixed in with the flows and ejections of nature in its most violent moments.

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