In any family gathering, old memories are replayed for the younger members of the family, time-compressed and shaped by the knowledge of what followed, details lost or intentionally misplaced. My family remembers Hurricane Katrina as a storm with little warning; on Friday it was going to pass by to the east as a category one, on Saturday the course had shifted, and by Sunday it was barrelling down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. By Monday morning, the surge had come and gone, but the trials of New Orleans were only beginning.
In our memories, no one saw it coming. We got out just in time. It was worse than expected. All of these are true, or remembered as true.
As a marker of climate change Katrina is especially appropriate in its intensity, strength, and lasting effect – but also for our general lack of preparedness. Families rode out the storm in homes that survived Hurricane Camille in 1969 but were no match for the tremendous surge in 2005, reducing houses to their component parts: lumber, sheets of metal roofing, and waterlogged sheetrock. People took shelter in trees, swam through the floodwaters, and hung onto pieces of flotsam like shipwrecked survivors. Not everyone made it. But even those who did, even the structures that still stood a day later, weren’t equipped for the recovery. No communications, no power, no fresh water supplies. No stockpiles of food or fuel. No one was ready for the extent and magnitude of the storm effects – no person, no corporation, no government.
We muddled through. We missed a lot of opportunities. We failed. People suffered. People died.
Lessons were learned. Systems were repaired and buildings replaced. Insurance (sometimes) paid off. And in the next storm, people heeded the warnings and evacuated. And again once or twice more. But years later, complacency has returned, and we figure that all the new buildings, completed to new codes and standards in the wake of 2005, should be enough to save us from all future storms. We grow tired of storing three days of water and food, checking our batteries every first of June, cranking up the generator every month. We get lazy and hope for the best. In another few years, we won’t remember so vividly the time of loss and recovery.
So it is with climate change. Because it is a slow-moving disaster, it is hard to link specific events – hurricanes, wildfires, flooding – to the overall shift. People search for reasons not to change their behaviour, not to leave the comfort of their air conditioning, or car, or beachfront home. We wilfully deny that something is coming. But when proof arrives, we may forget that we had many warnings. We may remember it more like a train derailment rather than a gradual shift; a ship that suddenly runs aground rather than imperceptibly rising waters.
We may not be able to outrun all the consequences of mankind’s hubris. On the bright side, the inevitable adaptability of people is so great that we will not remember with fidelity the way the world, our lives, used to be before the cataclysm.
It’s not much of a silver lining, to be sure. Perhaps it would be better to start adapting now.