Wednesday, January 20, 2010

California's Apocalyptic Weather

Yesterday afternoon, a headline appeared on Google News that read, "Parts of LA Under Tornado Warning."  This did not particularly grab my attention, so I was surprised when, a few minutes later, a list of the most popular stories also included this one.  What, I wondered, could possibly be so interesting about a tornado warning in Louisiana?  Then I looked more closely at the sources for the various articles and realized that, in this case, LA was not the postal abbreviation for the state of Louisiana, but the acronym for Los Angeles.

Context is everything.  I read the headline as being about Louisiana simply because it was much more plausible.  Louisiana has tornadoes.  Southern California has earthquakes and wildfires.  That's how the world works. If I was thrown for a loop by yesterday's weather in Los Angeles, I can only imagine what Angelenos themselves are thinking.  Today is bringing another storm and mudslides with attendant evacuations.

Storms like this are never fun, no matter where you are or how often they come around.  But if you live in an area that gets them a lot, tornado warnings and the like become a part of life.  Even here in southeast Michigan, where we have at most three tornado warnings a year, school children drill for them and my own kids know exactly where the "safe room" in our house is.  We are used to severe thunderstorms and flooded basements in the spring and summer, and bitter cold and snow in the winter.  That's how the world works.

A tornado in Los Angeles, on the other hand, feels about as likely as a major earthquake in Michigan -- it could happen, but nobody thinks it will.  After the Eureka earthquake I wrote about how whether an earthquake is "big" depends a lot on your previous experience with earthquakes (and of course, little did I know that I'd soon be blogging about another big, much more devastating one).  Whether or not a tornado warning feels particularly scary or traumatic, similarly, has a lot to do with whether you have them all the time. 

A kid in Los Angeles isn't as likely to know where the safe room is or to have practiced for severe weather in school.  On the other hand, my children haven't a clue what to do in an earthquake and would be terrified by even a modest tremblor. So, in addition to being more and less accustomed to certain things, we also are more and less prepared for them.  Preparation gives a sense of safety and lessens the traumatic impact of a crisis -- it's much more scary to have a tornado nearby if you first have to figure out what to do and only then can take cover.

We all have expectations for how the world works.  The more those expectations are violated, and the less we are prepared, the more traumatizing an incident is going to be.  So if it's all the same to Mother Nature, let's keep the earthquakes in Los Angeles and the tornadoes in Michigan.  That's the way the world works.


Colleen said...

Let's keep them minor, too, ok?

Liz Ditz said...

I'm in Northern California -- we too had a tornado advisory. We also rarely have thunder & lightening -- this series of storms have brought more T & L in 4 days than in the last 4 years.

Various areas hit by wildfires in the last 12 months have high risks of damage from mudflows.

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