Negative Positives

Midwest America is viewed by many as pretty boring territory.  Flyover country.  Farmland.  Flat as a pancake, without soaring mountains, beautiful beaches, or other natural scenic wonders.

hurricane-irma-puerto-rico-01-rtr-jc-170906_4x3_992But boy!  Reading this morning about a killer storm like Hurricane Irma, which has left the Caribbean battered and Floridians panicked as it bears down on places like Naples and Tampa, from the quiet comfort of my kitchen here in Columbus, makes me reflect on what we don’t get here in the Midwest — like hurricanes.  Or tsunamis.  Or deadly earthquakes that stretch the Richter scale.  Or raging wildfires sweeping across dried-out hillsides, avalanches, and colossal mudslides.  Here in America’s heartland we get a bad thunderstorm now and then, a river might flood here and there, and tornadoes are always a risk, but when it comes to bad weather and natural disasters that’s about it.  We’re shielded from the worst by hundreds of miles of non-coastal buffer zone and natural topography.

It all depends on how you look at the risk-reward calculus, I suppose.  We might not get the stirring vistas — unless, like me, you think that well-tended rolling farms and barns have their own special appeal — but the angry weather and natural disasters that we don’t get here are definitely a positive when the killer storms come calling.

Our thoughts are with the folks down in Florida and the south, many of whom are transplanted Midwesterners, as they ride out the storm.  Here’s hoping that everyone was able to get out of harm’s way.

Profiting From Others’ Misfortune

I’m a big fan of capitalism.  it’s by far the best, fairest, most rational, most efficient economic system — in normal times.  But when disaster strikes, and the “Invisible Hand” and the law of supply and demand entice some businesses to engage in rampant price-gouging, it makes capitalism look bad.

price-gouging-2That’s what’s happening in Texas right now.  Hurricane Harvey has proven so devastating, and the likelihood of continuing devastation and economic disruption is so great, that supply and demand, which together are supposed to regulate pricing, are completely out of whack.  As a result, some people in Texas are charging the people trapped in the hurricane zone outrageous, grossly inflated prices — like $99 for a case of bottled water, gas for sale at $10 per gallon, which is about three times as much as it sold for prior to the hurricane, and marginal hotel rooms rented at Ritz-quality rates.

Texas, like other states, has laws against price-gouging in times of emergency or natural disaster, but it’s hard for the price police to keep up with the businessmen who see a catastrophe as a way to make an easy buck and pad their profits.  For every gouger who is caught, there undoubtedly are many others who make a lot of money selling at exorbitant prices to people who don’t know enough to raise an issue about it.  It’s an old, time-honored story, because price-gouging is as old as economic activity itself.

Natural disasters like hurricanes often bring out the best in people.  We’re seeing a lot of that in Texas, with people selflessly heading out to try to rescue those who are stranded, or opening their homes and their wallets to help those who have suffered terrible losses.  It just makes you sick to your stomach that, mixed in with the many Good Samaritans, are greedy people who take advantage of the unfortunate and put money ahead of simple human kindness and decency.  How do the gougers sleep at night, knowing that they are profiting from the misery of others?

Shakin’, Bakin’, And Earthquakin’

There was an earthquake in southern California last night.

The earthquake was a 5.1 in magnitude, causing merchandise to fall off the shelves of stores — and, no doubt, causing Californians to wonder whether it was the first little tremor in the Big One that every resident of the Golden State quietly fears may someday be coming. The precariously lodged tectonic plates of the San Andreas Fault shift, the ground moves, and as the world rumbles, for a cold split second, everyone wonders how long it will last and how bad it will be. Then it is over, and life goes on.

I’ve only felt an earthquake once, and it was small tremor that touched Columbus from a epicenter that was far away. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel the ground slithering and grinding before my feet. It must be a strange sensation — and also one that you just come to accept as a risk of living in California or one of the other earthquake zones in the world. Some of the world’s most beautiful places pose risks of hurricanes, or mudslides, or earthquakes, or floods, or other natural disasters. If you live there, it’s part of the tradeoff.

If you go to the earthquake page of the U.S. Geological Service, you see that earthquakes and aftershocks are commonplaces in California. Each of those incidents would be deeply memorable, long-discussed events for those of us in the solid-grounded Midwest. How many of our friends in California even notice all of them?

When Hurricanes Strike, Forget Politics

Every day, those of us in the Midwest read stories about awful conditions in Staten Island and other parts of New York and New Jersey — people without power, without gas, without food, without help, and without hope, a week after Sandy the Superstorm made landfall — and we shudder.

The media is eager to label politicians as winners or losers in all of this.  They ask:  Did President Obama do a great job in the first 24 hours, or has he fallen down on the job recently, when he left the East Coast for the campaign trail?  Was New York City Mayor Bloomberg crazy to even consider holding the New York City Marathon under these circumstances?  And will FEMA ever perform flawlessly when a hurricane scores a near-direct hit on a major city?

It’s ludicrous to try to identify political winners and losers when disaster strikes; it just cheapens the colossal human tragedy to view it solely from a political perspective.  The conditions left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy are unimaginable to those of us who are accustomed to modern life — a group that includes all of the wretched souls in New York and New Jersey who have had their lives turned upside down.  Imagine living in a small apartment in one of the affected communities, having to deal with overflowing toilet bowls, spoiled food in the refrigerator, rotting trash at the curbside, no food or water, unheated rooms in near-freezing temperatures, and fears of armed looters when darkness falls.  The victims of Hurricane Sandy can’t understand why, a week later, they aren’t being helped to get their lives back to normal, and I expect they find it infuriating that the media has passed judgment on which politician performed well and which didn’t, and then moved on to another story.

If there is a lesson about this, it is that natural disasters are, in fact, disasters — incidents that have catastrophic consequences that can’t be easily reversed or repaired.   Mayors, Governors, and Presidents do the best they can, but often the scale of the disaster makes appalling human suffering unavoidable.  We should just accept that fact, let the governmental bodies do their job under difficult circumstances, try to help however we can, and not be quite so quick to judge.