We’ve had a great deal of rain in western Pennsylvania this year. I haven’t kept up with how many inches above average we are, especially with the latest rainfall that happened today. The wetland property where I work has flooded several times, causing damage to the trails and leaving behind debris and trash. Winter has lingered as well, bring snowfall and frost when we should be looking for spring wildflowers and listening to the choruses of spring peepers and wood frogs.
Today I hiked what I could of the trails while they were at flood stage. Temperatures started in the 40s F (4-6 C) and dropped all day. The on-and-off drizzle made it feel colder. Most people don’t venture out for a walk in this type of weather if it’s not necessary. My coworkers cringed at the idea, grimacing over imagined new damage to the trails and property. But I enjoy days like this.
There is something powerful in standing next to a flooded stream channel, watching the muddy waters spill over the banks and into the wetlands. Wetlands help to decrease flood damage. Their soils absorb more water than upland soils, and their vegetation can help slow the speed of water and catch debris. But those things don’t really cross my mind when I’m standing at the edge of a submerged section of trail, watching nature overwhelm what humans have made.
Nature needs to be respected. Humans can build and transform and remake a landscape, but in the end, nature will always have the final say in what happens there. One lesson I remember from my natural disasters courses in college revolved around how easily humans forget just how forceful nature can be. It only takes about ten years for people in an area to forget the devastation of a record-breaking storm or event. After that period, the next 25-year, 50-year, or 100-year storm becomes “the worst one we’ve ever seen,” even if the damages are less extensive than the previous “big one.” (And that’s another thing people don’t understand… saying a storm is a 25-year event or 50-year event doesn’t mean that they will occur only once every twenty-five or fifty years. A 25-year event has a 1 in 25 chance of happening in any year. A 50-year storm is a 1 in 50 chance. So sometimes nature hits a streak of luck and produces big storms multiple years in a row.)
So how does one avoid the forces of nature? The answer is that you really can’t escape storms or other natural disasters. But you can plan for them. Obvious things should be not building or buying property in overly-dangerous areas. If flooding, landslides, avalanches, etc. have caused damage to a property in the past, be prepared to see similar damage in the future. It never hurts to do some history research!
Also, when it comes to natural disasters, forget about first responders. A disaster that strikes your area will affect your neighbors just as much as you, so you have to be your own first responder. Keep bottled water, a supply of non-perishable food, flashlights and batteries on hand. A radio rather than a smartphone or ipad should also be part of your supplies in order to get local news reports. Either buy or build a good first aid kit, including prescription medications, that can treat a wide variety of injuries, and you should learn how to use everything it. Keep your supplies (both foodstuffs and medications) up to date as well. Basic first aid courses in the USA are pathetic anymore; they basically want you to keep an eye on the injured person and call emergency services. That’s okay in a non-disaster scenario, but when everyone around you is in need of help too, it might not be enough. Wilderness first aid classes are more extensive and will give you a better understanding of how to handle injuries when the arrival of help may be several hours or days away. There are plenty of other items that can be useful in a disaster, such as spare clothes, a sleeping bag, rope, scissors or knife, and much more, but what you decide to put in your own natural disaster preparedness kit depends on what kind of disaster you’re expecting and whether you need to stay put or evacuate. Try contacting your local public services to find out more and to see if your community has developed their own disaster and evacuation plans.