Wednesday, May 13, 2015

In the Shadow of Disasters

I have disasters on my mind today after two events that occurred late yesterday. In my town a shopping center fire burned for five hours and destroyed about six businesses. Two major streets had to be closed and in the traffic backups I was delayed 20 minutes in getting home. Obviously, others were far more inconvenienced than this, but fortunately, there were no major injuries.

Not long after and not far away, a train derailed injuring between 100 and 200 passengers. Some died. The busiest passenger rail line in the country remains closed 12 hours later, stranding thousands of travelers and forcing a much greater number to change their travel schedules or find alternate commuting routes. Authorities are so worried about the fragile condition of the broken train that news accounts are withholding the precise location of the crash. This was not even a high-speed train, but a train carries so many passengers that the human impact of this crash begins to compare to that of a plane crash.

I wasn’t directly affected by either disaster, unless a detour from roads closed as a safety precaution counts as a “direct” impact. They nevertheless affected my state of mind. The news of the fire kept me up an hour later than planned. Fortunately, I didn’t get the news of the train derailment until the morning, though that news then cast a shadow over my day today.

It seems to me that it is easy to underestimate the extent to which disasters can have a minor impact on a vast number of people, especially those nearby or for whom there is a personal connection. New York City was the destination of the train that crashed, and today anyone in New York can tell you about someone who had to change their plans because of the closed rail line. Rail travel between New York and Boston is running but the schedule has had to be reshuffled with no trains arriving from the south, and of course, it is the same story at Washington. Very few of us have the advanced Zen skills to allow us to return quickly to what we were doing after a disaster strikes close enough to affect the people around us.

The change in mood and schedule might be small but the number of people affected is enormous, making it a large effect in the aggregate. It is all the more reason to do what we can to prevent disasters like these. The secondary impact of the fire I mentioned did not reach so far as that of the train derailment, but in economic terms, it was nevertheless larger than the total value of the building involved. The comparison suggests that we could go farther to ensure that things go smoothly, so that we have more ordinary days in which disasters don’t happen.