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O.C. STONESTREET COLUMN: A look back at historic disasters, pandemics

O.C. STONESTREET COLUMN: A look back at historic disasters, pandemics

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The present health situation, which has affected the economic situation, which has affected the political situation, the grocery situation, the school situation, etc., has caused concern for many people.

My brother, who is a keen observer of trends, tells me he has heard that people who have run out of toilet paper have gone so far as to telephone 9-1-1 for assistance. If this is true, and it might well be, then woe is us. I hope we are made of sterner stuff.

A few years ago a fellow named Eric Chaline came out with an interesting book titled, “History’s Worst Disasters and the Stories Behind Them,” (New York: Metro Books, 2013) which puts things such as our present crisis into perspective: We have had big problems before, yet here we (well, a good number of us) are still.

Some of the 50 disasters Mr. Chaline chronicles will be familiar to most R&L readers. They include, in chronological order, the so-called “Black Death” or bubonic plague of 1346-1351, the 1666 Great Fire of London, the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852, the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, the Great Depression of 1929-1941, the Holocaust of 1938-1945, the meltdown of nuclear reactors at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, and the events of 9/11/2001.

The first “natural disaster” I think of is the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920. The R&L has published a number of articles and references to this event, which infected something like a third of the world’s population of the time and took 50 to 100 million lives.

The word “disaster” means “to go against the stars or heaven.” While Greater Power(s) may be behind such events as famines, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, other major calamities clearly have the hand of humans behind them, either as a primary cause or in making a “natural disaster” even worse.

For instance, no one planned that the Royal Mail Ship Titanic would collide with an iceberg in the North Atlantic, but ignoring several iceberg warnings, failing to have enough life boats to hold all the passengers and crew and permitting possible design flaws in a vessel promoted as “unsinkable”, were all clearly avoidable errors that led to 1,517 deaths.

Other disasters are not as well known to the general reader, such as the volcanic end of the Mediterranean island of Santorini-Thera in 1500 BCE. This event resulted in the destruction of the Minoan civilization, earthquakes and tsunamis all over the eastern Mediterranean, and may have formed the basis for Plato’s story of Atlantis. No one has any idea as to how many died.

Another big bang was the Krakatoa Eruption of 1883, which some scientists believe to have been the loudest sound ever heard. In case you have forgotten, Krakatoa was, or is, the remains of a volcanic island between Java and Sumatra, all parts of Indonesia.

Besides killing some thousand people by ash and superheated gas in the pyroclastic flow, another 36,000 souls perished on nearby islands as a result of the 151 foot-tall tidal wave. Other authorities suggest that a closer estimate of the number of those that perished directly would be 120,000.

Krakatoa was no single event, but rather a series of eruptions that began in May 1883 and continued, off and on, for four months. Many people would have survived had they taken the first eruptions more seriously. The atmosphere around the globe was affected by the amount of suspended ash in the atmosphere which partially blocked sunlight for the next five years or so, with estimates that global air temperatures dropped by more than 2 degrees F more than a year after the eruptions, constituting an example of global cooling.

And we call for help when we run out of toilet paper....

I hope I’m still around to read the history books of 20 years or more in the future, assuming there are still such things as books, to see what historians have to say about our present health crisis and how well we, as a nation and as a world society, handled the situation.

And I hope those books tell how we Americans rose to the challenge, helped each other and those in other countries, put aside petty differences and began a new period of progress peace and prosperity.

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