The practice of recycling old news articles still throws me off at times. For instance: here are two recent LA Times articles using big disasters as springboards to talk about possible giant earthquake scenarios in California. They start out talking about the Houston flooding from Harvey and yesterday’s quake in Mexico, then segue into Los Angeles disaster planning. By the end, they’ve segued into the same text. I was reading today’s and thinking, “I just read this, recently.” A ten-second search turned up the older article.
It’s not plagiarism. It’s the same reporter at the same newspaper. It’s basically the equivalent of stock footage, and it’s hardly the only example. It’s probably not even a new practice, just a lot easier to find now that everything’s online and searchable.
I’m thinking of a word. The definition is “a feeling of shock, sadness, compassion and sometimes guilty relief in response to a disaster that happens somewhere else.” It’s not “horror,” “rage,” pity,” or “sympathy.” It could be German in origin. It’s what a good chunk of the world felt after last year’s tsunami, and it’s what a goodly number of Americans are feeling now about Hurricane Katrina.
And it doesn’t exist.
People are good at making up words. The variety of creations added to the OED each year, and the number of suggestions that are rejected, prove that beyond a doubt. We even make up words without meaning to, running together utterances like “bighuge” and “goaheadand.” We have a word—emo—for “loud, emotionally charged pop-punk music.” Some of us know the word schadenfreude and aren’t afraid to use it. If we can encapsulate stuff like this, we should be able to pick a word or two to define the enhanced survivors’ guilt and horrific fascination, laced with uncharacteristic compassion, gripping so many of us.
So far, we haven’t.
Disasters happen all the time, and always have. We’re just getting better at broadcasting them all. Before the age of telegraph and radio, it was often too late to send rescue-type aid by the time bad news arrived. Today, we can get the news in an instant, but the majority of us are simply unable to give the kind of aid—airlifts, rebuilding, law and order—we perceive as most meaningful. We are isolated by distance and circumstance, so we send money, and watch, and hope. The more we are able to watch, the more we need a word for what’s making us watch. So everybody who’s working on the projects for how to write “whole nother” and finding the modern negative of “used to,” you have a new assignment. Due date: next disaster.
It wasn’t enough for scum-sucking leeches to kidnap, defraud, rob, and rape survivors of last week’s tsunami. No, they have to go after victims’ families abroad. Sweden won’t release the names of hundreds of missing Swedes for fear that thieves will target their homes. Fake charities are springing up to siphon off donations. And one man inexplicably spammed worried family members “confirming” that their missing loved ones were dead.
Fortunately this isn’t the whole story. The outpouring of aid to stricken areas has been incredible. $350 million from the US government alone, not counting private donations, a staggering $500 million from Japan, with worldwide relief efforts reportedly reaching $2 billion. Doctors Without Borders has received enough donations to cover everything they expect to be able to do in the area, and are asking people to donate to their general fund instead, to help relieve other humanitarian crises. And there’s talk of both building a warning system in the Indian Ocean and improving the system in the Pacific [archive.org]. Robert Cringely has even suggested harnessing the Internet as a warning system, though in this case, many of the hardest-hit areas were still missing lines of communication.
Here’s a list of charities at MeyerWeb and the original at CNN.
Apparently [giant]* tsunamis are so rare in the Indian Ocean—once every 700 years—that there is no warning system in place. When the USGS detected the quake, they scrambled to send a warning, but couldn’t reach anyone in the area:
“We tried to do what we could,” McCreery said. “We don’t have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world.”
Within moments of detecting the 9-magnitude quake, McCreery and his staff were on the phone to Australia, then to U.S. Naval officials, various U.S. embassies and finally the U.S. State Department.
Even with a warning system in place, it would have caused massive devastation, but there would have been time for many—maybe even most of the people who died (at least from the immediate deluge) to reach higher ground and safety.
Reportedly efforts are underway to set up a network.
Red Cross donation info.
*Update: I was recently looking back over this post & noticed the claim at the beginning, that tsunamis only hit every 700 years in the Indian ocean, and immediately thought, “this doesn’t make any sense!” I mean, Indonesia is kind of a hotbed of tectonic activity. Krakatoa, anyone?
The CNET article is still up, but didn’t offer any clarification. The exact quote was that “such catastrophes only happen there about once every 700 years.” But some quick searching turned up some clearer information: Tsunamis of this massive size are rare in the Indian ocean, not tsunamis in general. Here’s a 2008 Nature article on geological evidence for Indian Ocean megatsunamis over the past 2500 years, with previous events in the 1300s and 800s.