Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tsunamis -- maybe the greatest peril of all

The biggest tragedy on record in recent memory is the Dec. 26 2006 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, triggered by an underwater earthquake off a coast of one of the Indonesian islands. The incident has triggered interest in the surprising threats to the mainland United States. Particularly on the East Coast, a tsunami could cause enormous damage to physical infrastructure from Miami all the way to the Canadian Maritimes, and our economic system is not prepared to deal with this in any reasonable way, even if people could be evacuated in time. There could be up to ten hours warning on the East Coast.

The History Channel broadcast-ed two one-hour documentaries on these grim scenarios on Tuesday, July 18, 2006.

Mega Disasters: East Coast Tsunami (2006, History Channel) explores the possibility that a volcanic eruption (the Cumbre Vieja) on La Palma Island in the Canary Islands (of the coast of Africa) could cause a 200 cubic mile landside that generates a 150-300 foot tsunami that reaches all the way to the East Coast from Florida to Newfoundland. The tidal waves would come in about 20 successive waves, and the “storm surges” would inundate all areas up to close to 300 feet above sea level (essentially the Fall Line of the Piedmont Plateau), destroying much of New York and Boston as well as obviously Florida. The economic and legal system is not prepared for such a catastrophe, as enormous sacrifices would have to be made by all Americans. (Remember the issue of taking in “refugees” into private homes after Katrina?) One wonders (in comparison to many other possible catastrophes) what science could do to prevent such destruction. Can mankind’s rationality win out, or is this idea a justification for moral values that force people to honor the norms of familial socialization? There was a smaller tsunami from the “Grand Banks” in Newfoundland in 1929. The Ritter Island tsunami in 1888 is analyzed.

One question that would come to mind here is whether the loose rock on the volcano should be "stripmined" to remove the risk of avalanche or massive rock slide. I wonder whether this is technically possible given the huge scale of strip mining equipment used to stripmine for coal.

Mega Disasters: West Coast Tsunami (2006, History Channel) is the companion film, about the grim outcomes along the West Coast if the subduction zone off the Pacific Northwest Coast fails with a massive earthquake. There is proof of earlier tsunamis from Hawaii, and going across the Pacific to Japan, and Krakatoa—as well as the catastrophe in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004.

Here is a National Geographic writeup on the tsunami problem. I believe that NG will have a film or special of its own soon on this. This program aired on July 27, 2006 and was called "Ultimate Tsunami." It covered the Indonesian Tsunami as a "relfective tsunami", with the tremendous damage at Banda Aceh and in Sri Lanka (Galle) and Thailand. It covered a landslide tsunami at Lituya Bay, Alaska in 1958, that generated an ultimate wave 1700 feet high in a small area. It speculates that the Oahu (including Honolulu) could be overrun by an ultimate tsunami from the Big Island to the east if Mauna Loa were to have a big eruption and if a significant portion of the mountain slid into the ocean.

Another important film was Peter Weir's 1977 film The Last Wave, which ends with a massive tsunami hitting Australia, after days of rain and warnings from aborigines.

Films on earthquakes

The famous potboiler is Earthquake (1974, Universal, dir. Mark Robson), where LA gets little shocks in the early part of the movie, where a dam breaks, and then it shakes down for good half way through. The film was in “Sensurround.”

NBC proffered 10.5 in 2004 (dir. John Lafia) where, after a series of massive rifts (a train falls into a canyon), a large portion of southern California slides into the Pacific. Then in 10.5 Apocalypse (2006), a huge fault opens up in the Midwest, splitting the continent in two.

The History Channel covers quakes in its Mega-Disaster series:

Mega Disasters: Earthquake in the Heartland (2006, History Channel) is a one hour documentary that simulates what would happen in the lower Midwest (Memphis and St. Louis) is a New Madrid, MO style earthquake (there were three in 1811-1812) recurred, and geology indicates that another series of 8.0 quakes in the “dimple” could occur in about 100 years. Over 10 million could be made homeless. Compare to the NBC “10.5” TV movie series. http://quake.wr.usgs.gov/prepare/factsheets/NewMadrid/ ;

But the biggie is the San Francisco 1906 earthquake:

On (Easter, 4/16/2006), the HC gave us Mega-Disasters: The San Francisco Earthquake which talked a lot more about the engineering issues, including the “soft stories” issue for many older residential buildings. The film also included a simulation of what could happen with a 7.9 earthquake at the same place today. The Golden Gate Bridge loses a span, and the eastern Bay Bridge (up to Treasure Island) collapses. The City Hall and Asian Art museum are on floaters. I could wind up there myself some day, depending on what course my life takes.

On 4/16/2006 National Geographic presented The Great Quake (2006, dir. Philip Smith) chronicles the great 4/18/1906 San Francisco earthquake, aftershocks and fire. The poor people lived in a landfill area south of Market street, where the soil liquefied into quicksand. The rich people lived in the higher sections that at first were not much affected; even mayor Schmitz had to be awakened. But soon fires consumed them, even as rich people watched while eating picnics. The Army build firebreaks and had to destroy wealthy sections to protect the western part of the City. But the pattern reminds us of the Johnstown, PA floods and the, of course, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The rebuilding would still not instill new codes, and with the 1989 earthquake the Market area would still pancake and collapse.

The National Geographic Channel has also offered the one-hour film "Ultimate Earthquake" with a lot of discussion of the 1960 9.5 Chile earthquake and resulting tsunamis that crossed the Pacific Ocean.

PBS followed up with a one-hour American Experience: The Great San Francisco Earthquake which gave more details about life in San Francisco just before the quake (the other two films covered the performance the night before of Bizet’s Carmen). PBS shows a brief live silent film of a fire department responding to a call, the men bunking in the same room and sliding down the fire pole in their underwear, an ironic presentation for San Francisco.

Films on global warming (including hurricanes, brush fires)

The film debate started when actor Leonardo Di Caprio announced that he was going to produce a film on global warming. This may date back to the days when he starred in The Beach (2000, 20th Century Fox, dir. Danny Boyle) where he journeys to a threatened national park in coastal Thailand. Di Caprio has produced a 10 minute short on the Web called Global Warming as well as Water Planet.

Of course, the best known recent film is An Inconvenient Truth (20006, Paramount Classics, dir. Davis Guggenheim) were former Democratic Vice President Al Gore gives a well illustrated college lecture, with overwhelming graphical and photographic evidence, including scenes of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. A companion film is Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006, Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Chris Paine) which documents the saga of lease-only electric cars in the late 1990s in California.

The closest thing to a documentary “film” in the early days after the Katrina hurricane catastrophe in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast is Oprah Winfrey’s two day report on Sept. 1 and 2. At one point she enters the Superdome and announces that the stench would make anyone vomit. She provides live coverage of various flooded locations in New Orleands and the Mississippi Coast. Actor Matthew McConaughey (from Texas) co-hosts much of the report.

PBS presented, on Nov. 22 2005, a triple-header of programs documenting Hurricane Katrina. NOVA (from WGBH Boston) gave a chronological account of Katrina in "Storm that Drowned a City." Frontline followed with “Storm,” with a heavy account on the poor preparations of FEMA, partly because it had been filled by Bush with political appointees. The PBS report does not emphasize the racial demographics exacerbating the relief efforts in the flood. Answering to media calls, I would volunteer a bit, sometimes given meals, in a call center in Falls Church VA for the Red Cross and find them bottlenecked when referring clients to a single number for financial aid. “American Experience” presented “Fatal Flood” about the 1927 lower Mississippi flood, with a great emphasis on racial and class segregation, neglect and exploitation. Part of the story concerns the relationship between Greenville Ms business magnate Leroy Percy and his gay son Will Percy (well known as a poet); after constant pressure from the Ku Klux Klan Leroy abandoned the town will traveling on business and left his son in charge of the relief, and Will was caught in serious racial tensions, leading eventually to lynchings.

National Geographic’s Inside Hurricane Katrina (June 22, 2006)(link) is a one hour documentary of the hurricane and especially the levee failure in New Orleans, which now appears to be an engineering failure: The Army Corps of Engineers did not drive the stanchions through the peat layers underneath the levees, so they liquefied, even under a hit from just a Cateogroy 3 Hurriacne.

Another result of global warming is increased brush fires and wildfires. This needs more treatment in film. An early example was The Blazing Forest (1952, Paramount, dir. Edward Ludwig) with John Payne.

The Weather Channel has featured a series "It Could Happen Tomorrow" with global warming disasters like a Category 5 hurricane flooding New York City, or an F5 tornado hitting downtown Dallas, TX.

National Geographic has a film "Ultimate Tornado" (remember the 1996 Jan de Bont film Twister)(written in part by Michael Chricton) that depicts the possibility of an Fujita F5 hitting downtown Dallas, TX, after giving the history of the Jerrell, TX and Moore, OK (near Oklahoma City) tornadoes. Southern Minnesota was hit by severe tornadoes on March 30, 1998.

Films on comets and asteroids

1998 saw two such movies.

Deep Impact (Dreamworks, dir. Mimi Leder) goes for drama when a teenage boy discovers a comet approaching earth. It will make a direct hit. People will be chosen by lot to go live in special shelters. The comet does hit the Atlantic Ocean and cause a thousand foot tsunami to overrun the East Coast.

Armageddon (Touchstone, Jerry Bruckheimer) has an asteroid (rather than a comet) approach the earth, as an oil drilling team with Ben Affleck goes up on a space craft to plant nuclear weapons on it. Pieces of it hit New York, and Paris is destroyed first.

Films on volcanoes

Tsunami’s (which can be generated by volcanoes and earthquakes) will be presented separately.

The most famous film is Pompeii: The Last Day (2004, Discovery Channel, BBC, dir. Peter Nicholson), a docudrama of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, from the point of view of a character, Stephen, in August 79 AD. This film had great advertising in the Washington DC Metro and was shown Jan 30, 2004.

Supervolcano (2005, Discovery Channel, BBC, dir. Tony Mitchell, with Tom Brokaw as narrator) simulates what would happen if the caldera under Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana were to explode. This event seems to happen every 300000 to 600000 years, and we may be about due. There is apparently a caldera at Mono Lake in the northern Owens Valley along famous US 395 in California, and this could represent a threat for a massive eruption, too. Besides Mt. St Helens (1980), Mt. Rainier (with its glacier), Mt. Baker and Mt. Adams all represent possible threats in the Cascade Range.

Volcano (1996, 20th Century Fox, dir. Mick Jackson) as a small caldera appear within the City of Los Angeles and erupt.

Dante’s Peak (1997, Universal, dir. John Donaldson, starring Pearce Brosnan) has a volcano near a resort town reawaken.

Films on pandemics

The most notorious recent film was aired on ABC Tues. May 9, 2006. It was Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America (ABC/Disney/Touchstone, dir. David Pearce). The film presented a businessman returning from the Far East as an “index case.” The avian flu virus mutates into a form easily transmitted among humans, and this person is presented as that specific carrier. It probably would happen that suddenly with one person. A total social breakdown with martial law ensues within the United States, as the virus circles the world in waves. At the end, a second mutation originates in Angola and appears to be almost 100% fatal. Readers should know that many authorities question whether an avian flu epidemic could spread this quickly.

One preventive measure that could be used would be to develop a synthetic vaccine (to various viral proteins), a possibility mentioned in Business Week in Oct. 2005. It would be important to determine if a diluted vaccine can work. Anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu will be in short supply and may not work very well.

Another film was Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon (2002, Fox, dir. Daniel Percival, 100 min) in which a smallpox epidemic is started by a lone fanatic in a subway tunnel. The quarantines happen in both the US and UK, and one of the heros, a teenage boy, dies. More people survive than die, and society is pretty much out of commission for several months.

A preventive measure would be to resume vaccinations. The US needs to accumulate enough vaccine and determine if a diluted vaccine can work.

This blog presents and reviews films on possible catastrophes

This blog will list and briefly review a number of films, especially television and cable documentaries, on natural disasters that could threaten individual freedom and personal autonomy.

Socially, the issue is important because some disasters could be so large as to call the basic financial system and infrastructure in the United States and in western countries to become challenged. Some probably are impossible, and some could probably be prevented with a sufficiently determined effort.

An advanced technological infrastructure enables personal autonomy and enables people with diverse temperaments and abilities to carve out their own course in life, regardless of family origins or pressures. Major catastrophes could cause people to be thrown into solidarity with blood families and with other community persons that they did not choose to be close to, so this is a fundamental liberty issue.

Note that the Sci-Fo channel has some generic films called "Nature Unleashed" about Ice, Fire, Tornado, Avalance, Volcano, Earthquake.