Friends in Southern California had a big scare recently when that area experienced its most severe earthquakes in decades. Fortunately, despite all the jolts and aftershocks, no one was killed, and apparently, there was little major damage to the infrastructure.
When I heard the news about the quakes, I immediately thought back to October 17, 1989. That was the day the San Francisco Bay Area was hit with a magnitude 6.9 earthquake. As much of the rest of America watched on television – the quake hit just before the start of the third game of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics – bridges and highways collapsed, buildings crumbled, and lives were shattered. In only 15 seconds, 63 people died and nearly 4,000 others were injured.
Back then, I was a doctoral student in Oklahoma, far removed from the catastrophe in San Francisco. Yet that event affected me deeply. So many tragedies, no clear pattern, no consistent explanation for why some people lost everything, including their lives. It was just the work of nature, the melody of uncertainty, the song of change. Nature owed us no explanation, no rational understanding of why this time and this place. It was terrifying, frustrating and inexplicable.
One year later, residents throughout the Mississippi Valley waited in fear that “the big one” was about to happen along the New Madrid Seismic Zone – roughly 170 miles southeast of Ladue – thanks to a prediction by a since-discredited self-styled climatologist named Iben Browning. Thankfully, it never came to pass.
What these events did, however, was raise our collective consciousness about Mother Nature and the fragility of our existence. In the blink of an eye, life can change for so many people, leaving physical and emotional scars that may last a lifetime. People, myself included, began to realize that this could happen to us, and now, 30 years later, we have made significant improvements in building codes and infrastructure reinforcements. The fact that the damage from a 6.9-level earthquake in Southern California was limited suggests that we are paying attention and responding in positive ways.
Even more important are the human stories that events like these bring to the front. Thirty years ago, I saw people coming together, helping each other in times of need. Black youths in Oakland peering into 18-inch gaps between the layers of concrete to help mostly white commuters climb to safety. People in expensive business suits munching chicken wings with homeless people in tattered clothes. It was a unique display of the haves and the have-nots together sharing.
I was encouraged to read about Los Angeles neighborhoods organizing to check on one another’s safety and help when disaster strikes. It made me realize that in times of tragedy, we realize how much we really need each other, how much we really have in common.
One of the most popular new musicals on Broadway today, Come From Away, also played in St. Louis in May at The Fabulous Fox Theatre. It tells the tale of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, who opened their town, their homes and their hearts to more than 7,000 airline travelers who were grounded there following the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001. Like the people by the Bay, they leaned on one another and pulled together. For five days, the Newfoundlanders showed that love and compassion can always triumph over tragedy and disaster.
Like the weather, life often can be a thing of beauty, a thing to enjoy – but it also can change unexpectedly, suddenly. Its impact can be devastating, even deadly. But after every storm comes a calm, a time to reflect on change.
Whether because of a natural disaster or a manmade catastrophe – an earthquake, a tsunami, a tornado, a flood or a terrorist act – we may stagger and fall, but we always find a way to regain our balance. We find comfort in our common humanity.
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is assistant chancellor of International Programs-Africa, director of Africa Initiative and associate director of the Global Health Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a former president of Westminster College and served as dean at the Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University. He has a Ph.D. in economics.