David 'Mas' Masumoto

Un-natural disasters we often bring on ourselves

A Houston neighborhood floods in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Columnist David “Mas” Masumoto notes this and other “natural” disasters but wonders – why do we often seem caught off-guard by what we should expect?
A Houston neighborhood floods in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Columnist David “Mas” Masumoto notes this and other “natural” disasters but wonders – why do we often seem caught off-guard by what we should expect? Associated Press file

Every September I engage in the ritual of drying grapes into raisins. Green grapes are picked and laid onto paper trays on the ground between the vine rows. Then you wait for weeks as they dry into raisins. Simple, efficient, using the sun’s power – and highly risky because if a rainstorm rolls in, it can result in disaster.

So I study the weather intensely, monitoring the best I can, watching satellite imagery as a weather front marches into our Valley to create havoc. I have learned humility with weather: long ago I recognized you can’t control nature.

With the recent hurricanes we saw, nature became a spectacle. When such a catastrophe hits, we simply call it a “natural disaster.”

Words frame perspectives and attitudes. “Unprecedented.” “Historic.” We forget that a 100-year storm does not mean such a storm strikes just once every 100 years. Rather, it means every year there’s a 1 percent chance a storm of that magnitude could wreak mayhem, and next year there’s another 1 percent chance.

In many cases, it’s folly to declare a “once in 500-years” storm. We simply don’t have the data for these forecasts. Think about it, who was recording daily weather in the 1600s and what instruments could they have used?

Yet we adopt such perspectives and begin to build our lives (and cities) upon them. We falsely believe we understand weather much more than we do. We build a false narrative as we “witness” calamities elsewhere, yet fail to accept they can happen in our own backyard.

It’s only natural

We often ignore the role nature truly plays in our lives. Only a few generations ago, the majority of Americans lost their direct contact with agriculture and weather. When millions moved off the farm in the early 1900s, we also left behind our direct connection with the natural world.

Artificial constructs, like cities, swelled with a reframing of the everyday life and simple things – like time. For example, how natural is it to work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday with weekends and holidays off? We then ignore seasonal changes and continue to function with artificial life rhythms.

We also mask our geographies, believing we can build roads anywhere, allowing cities to sprawl, overlooking warning signs like floodplains or hurricane surges, which we witnessed in Houston and Florida. Such artificial constructs result in a belief that we can manage nature, that we are the masters of the world around us, and the natural world must bow to our needs and desires.

I am not advocating we deconstruct our cities. Rather, it’s time to reexamine the assumptions of planning and design. How frequently have we assumed control and implemented decisions as if risk was minimal, ignoring zoning policies and circumventing compulsory insurance protections? In Houston, despite recurring flooding, 80 percent of residents in the most susceptible areas did not have proper insurance.

The latest weather incidents are not natural disasters. While nature is the driver of a storm or earthquake, we have made many decisions that implicate how weather impacts our homes and businesses.

The human element must be included in these unnatural disasters: where and how a city is built, altering the natural path of a river or creek, revising flood plain jurisdictions, adopting building codes that limit damage in a storm or wildfire and make them voluntary rather than mandatory. Public policies can mitigate or exasperate a crisis.

The words we use and the jargon that shapes our point of view all matter. Instead of another image of a brave reporter standing in the howling winds of a hurricane, or a camera capturing the raging waters overflowing a bank, just as compelling should be a seemingly mundane discussion over infrastructure and environmental policy.

Toss in a debate of health care coverage after the heroic rescues and the compulsory insurance plans that were ignored. Then highlight the success stories, the retaining wall that protected a coastline, the building codes that withstood winds and rain, the enforced fire codes that allowed a home to escape the ravages of a wildfire.

Such stories are hidden and silenced while our eyes are diverted to the next unnatural disaster.

Lessons learned

As a farmer, I have learned too often about the harsh reality of weather and the prices paid. Watching the latest weather disaster makes me think of the cleanup and recovery. A looming question remains: Who will pay? The answer: We all do, especially with the necessary governmental support that ironically dissolves the division between red and blue states in the grays of a disaster.

I do say “necessary” because we live in a society that helps all and provides assistance when needed. We have the compassion to lend a hand to each other.

A few generations ago, such assistance would have been called “socialist” and intrusion of government into our private lives. Natural disasters meant families and communities were simply unlucky to be in the path of a tornado or hurricane. Natural meant implied risk for all of us, accepting the consequences of nature.

But we now live in a different world, a caring world where a disaster brings out the best in us. Caring means help, even if from our taxpaying contributions.

This month and into October, I hope my raisins will quietly dry in the sun without fanfare, although we already had a series of thunderstorms that quickly reminded me of the power of nature. A good year for me is one without major incidents of weather. I live a blessed life when I can ask about the next harvest and not worry about what should and could have been done to prevent another unnatural disaster.

David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com.