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Nature as a Terrorist

By Obi Nwakanma

If anybody is still in doubt about the reality of global warming, the images coming out of New York this past week ought to put paid to the skepticism. Global warming is real folks, and storms like “Hurricane Sandy,” metrologists now warn us, is the new normal.

That is, we must begin realistically to expect that these devastating natural events will continue to happen at even increasing velocity. New York City and the entire American mid-Atlantic came under the fierce umbrage of nature this time.

What we saw in the picture of the carnage is that in spite of all our exertions at domesticating or “civilizing” nature and the natural environment, our power over the sublime is puny. Nature is a terrorist. Think New York City and September 11, 2001.

On this particular day, two planes flew directly into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, then one of most visible landmarks in the New York city skyline; a true tribute to human engineering ingenuity and dare; a real tower of babel. In one tragic day and in a vicious and daring act, suicide bombers hijacked planes and flew them straight into this towering edifice and brought it low.

The image of that event is still quite a shock. The panic in the city was total. America had come under attack. The panic soon spread across the United States and quickly across the world, thanks certainly, to the new global network of televisions and the internet.

The general panic in the city and the material cost continues in part to be one of the great lore of contemporary terrorism. America went to war as a result of that attack. Using its might and its fiery instruments of war, the United States went after Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and after Saddam Hussein in Iraq to press home the fact that no one messes with America.

Of course, there were consequences in America’s war policies: it created the image across the world of America as the big bad wolf. In any case, the US got bin Laden and got Saddam, and are still fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But roll back the times, and you have Hurricane Sandy.

This storm – a slow moving monster, rising through the North Atlantic oscillation, staged a three-pronged attack: first it moved through the Caribbean, where a low wind shear and warm waters allowed it to strengthen, and gathering strength caused devastation on its path from Kingston Jamaica to Santiago de Cuba; it moved quickly through Florida, this hurricane prone part of the United States, its southernmost part, known in Piratical lore as Tortuga, which on the map looks like America’s tail dipping into the waters.

The slow moving storm ignored Florida this time, but became a tropical cyclone, and made its final landfall on Atlantic City, New Jersey. The path of this storm now bears the imprint of a vast natural disaster; of nature at her angriest; of nature as a terrorist. Compared in impact and destruction, the effect of this storm makes the September 11 attack look like a mere kick on the sheen of New York.

From the Jersey shores to New York’s Coney Island and beyond, the image of devastation is unprecedented. It is as though the entire American Mid-Atlantic came under a terrorist attack: the destruction of city infrastructure – power lines, bridges, roads, city transportation, the entire superstructure of living in a place line New York City came to a massive halt.

Wall Street and the New York stock exchange closed down for two days, and no trading went on. There was nothing to trade, exceptperhaps disaster stock. Appraisers put the potential cost to insurance following this natural disaster to over 20 billion US dollars, and counting.

As I write this, people are still in refugee shelters, over six million people are still without electricity; it was instructive seeing New Yorkers queuing to buy scarce fuel with gasoline cans, an image that quickly resonates with me as a Nigerian who has seen long queues at gas stations during many periods of fuel scarcity. To the American, this is apocalypse.

The world ends when you can no longer guarantee the basic presence of the things they take for granted: fuel, electricity, your ATM card; in short the collapse of the world is marked in the power of the virtual world and its reality that we have created to distance us from the tactile feel of the real world.

All that came to fore this past week when the waters rose in anger against our human excesses and threw a hydrogen bomb on America’s greatest city. I think part of the unnerving frustrations in this scenario is that the United States, usually powerful and decisive against any adversary feels itself powerless before this particular foe – nature – who has become a global terrorist.

Not that nature is to blame. We, in our imprudent consumption, and our fierce desires for energy, have awakened its most terrifying instincts by the things we have done and failed to do. These nature-borne disasters are not restricted to America – we have seen the disastrous effects of the earthquakes in Japan, and the increasing power and frequency of the Tsunamis.

For long, metrologists and earth scientists who have measured changes in atmospheric chemistry have warned that many coastal cities and landscapes will disappear, consumed by water, as a result of global warming which would unleash increasingly powerful oceanic surges in coming years.

We better pay attention. Three weeks ago in Nigeria, the floodplains of the Niger was overwhelmed, across six states North and South and through the Niger delta, with a devastating storm that left many inhabitants of these areas flooded, homeless and on the run.

I was touched personally by the cry of the former senator, Mrs. Stella Omu, spouse of Major-General Charles Omu who lamented that the tropical storms, Nigeria’s own equivalent of the Atlantic hurricanes, has left her homeland so flooded that it is impossible to bury her brother, who is still lying in the mortuary. It is instructive to us all. The devastating reach of the storm must teach us a lesson.


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