Not If, But When

On Friday, November 30th, at 8:29 am, Anchorage Alaska was hit with a magnitude 7.3 (exact number varies) earthquake. After the chaos, the shattered streets, the fires and flooding, not a single person died that day in Anchorage. To understand how incredible that is, look at the fact that smaller quakes in California, such as Northridge’s 6.7 in 1994 and Loma Prieta’s 6.9 in 1989—caused billions in damage and killed more than 50 people each (curbed.com). Obviously California has more of a population than Alaska, but the fact that Anchorage resumed semi normal operations within 24 hours of a natural disaster has to mean something. So, the main question is, why?

At 8:25 am that day, I was sitting on the stairs of a gymnasium at Lake Otis Elementary. I just yelled out my five minute warning, and watched as 17 of my kids took turns throwing the ball around. My staff sat on the stairs talking with another youth, and, as 8:28 am rolled around, I began to stand and move my way to the door to begin the kids in their lining up procedures. Then it hit. Like a shock, all 19 of the pairs of eyes in the room looked right at me, and before I could even speak, everyone was running towards the door at which I stood in front of.

Huddled together, I felt the kids crawling into the open spots beneath my legs, my arms, and my chest. The younger ones sobbed, and older ones provided a shelter with their arms. For what felt like hours we sat there, heads spinning, watching pieces of the ceiling float down, covering us in a white dust. Once it stopped, I instructed my staff to keep all of the kids in one place, and I began to ensure safety of others. As I was walking away, one of my children yell to me, “Be careful, aftershocks are coming!” Then it came, and then over 1,800 aftershocks have come since, and every single one of my kids, as well as every single person in the city was able to go home that night (or find housing that night).

Buy why? The first thing you learn about when you move to Alaska is the 1964 earthquake, also known as the “Good Friday Earthquake”. This earthquake was so big that seismographs struggled to record it correctly, and it is, still to this day, the largest earthquake in US history. Registering at a 9.2, the 1964 quake was almost 100 times stronger than the one that hit on Friday. This earthquake, according to Forbes.com, lasted for five minutes and triggered widespread destruction, 2,000 landslides, a 98 ft high tsunami and killed 139 people. With that, the tsunami wiped out many villages along the southwest coast of Alaska as well. It was only after this that Anchorage revamped itself. With stricter building codes, more efficient emergency procedures, and an education of preparedness, Alaska prepared itself for the worst earthquake in history, and when a challenger arrived, Anchorage walked away almost fully intact.

Counter this with Hurricane Katrina, which hit the southeast portion of the United States in 2005. Looking specifically at Louisiana, 1,577 people died, $81 billion in property damage was caused, and over 80% of the city of New Orleans was flooded (dosomething.org) The levees there were built for a category 3 storm, and when a category 5 storm came, they didn’t stand a chance. Is this an issue of lack of preparedness, or just bad luck? If New Orleans would have prepared themselves for the worst storm possible, instead of a really bad storm, would this catastrophe have occured? Maybe, but maybe not.

What occurred in Anchorage is a testament of preparedness, of turning your back to naivety and staring a painful reality in the face. A storm is coming, but will you survive? Will you do what is necessary, even what is painful, in order to withstand what is inevitably coming?

There are many fascinating ways to look at this idea. Whether we want to see it as a flood myth, where God punished an unjust society, like he did with Noah (the corruption that occurred before Katrina is well noted), or a systematic, but random event that comes at unforseen times, like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, or the tsunami that hit Japan, or even if we want to see it as nature testing, and making us pay for our lack of preparedness (the levees in New Orleans, the Fires that continually burn through or the inevitable earthquake that will wreak havoc in California), it doesn’t matter, our time will come.

We all suffer from disasters in our day to day lives. There is very little we can do to prevent the flood, we can only be the person who has prepared themselves to ride it out. A metaphor that I have been bouncing around a lot is: I would rather 1,000,000 daily, tiny fires that I can survive, than one random single fire that destroys everything. And to take this a step further, I would rather voluntarily burn myself everyday in preparation, rather than be caught off guard by a large fire.

I do this in my everyday life. So much so that my girlfriend has to feign surprise when I share with her that I am having a new existential crisis, or that I am reworking a mode of being for myself. I set aside time every day to reflect on how I behaved yesterday, to tear myself part and grill myself on where I could have been better, so attempt to foresee how my shortcomings will lead to unforeseen consequences, to challenge and burn bits of myself off. It sucks, greatly, but I do this so that I can survive, help others survive, and handle myself adequately, when the inevitable disaster comes. I.E. when I get hit with a random medical bill, or when a huge fight sparks between my girlfriend and I, or when changes that threaten to derail my system poke their head up. I burn myself a tiny bit everyday, so that a fire doesn’t sweep through and burn my relationship, my sense of self, or my mental stability to the ground.

I force myself to relive past disasters, because I know when the next earthquake comes (metaphorically), I will still be standing afterwards. A relative example may be this: Abigail (my girlfriend) and I have two friends who have been dating for a year and a half. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the behavior of the male begins to change drastically. He starts saying he wants to leave the state, that he hates everything he does here, and that he has been faking interest in their hobbies. He impulsively buys a ticket out of state, and now, just like that, within a few weeks, this relationship has ended.

Yes, this happens and may just be chalked up the a random occurrence. But it is also seemingly obvious that this man hit a crisis. He realized he was approaching 30 and had no foothold in life. He was lost, scared, and didn’t know how to handle it. Home represented a safe place, and his girlfriend represented all those feelings he has refused to noticed, everything he had ignored. Instead of voluntarily facing the flame, he ignored it, and now, with everything gone in ashes, there is no choice but to start again.

The disaster is coming. The flood myth was real (not necessary literally, another topic later). We will be tested, we will be thrown into a fire, shaken into the earth, beaten to a pulp by the world, this will happen. But how do we prepare? This is a measure of our character. How will we respond when the moment comes? Will we be like Anchorage, or will our preparation not be enough? Because, as proverbs 24:10 tells us: “If thy faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.”