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The Upside to Natural Disasters

Before I write anything else, I want to unequivocally explain that I think natural disasters are terrible. They cause countless deaths and incredible human suffering. With that being understood, I often find myself believing that things happen in nature for a reason, and so I started to ponder what some of the good aspects to natural disasters might be. I’ve come up with three ideas about what might be some positive consequences of natural disasters.

1. Natural Disasters Provide People with a Greater Respect & Appreciation for Nature

I currently live in Peru, and nowhere else has it been more obvious that natural disasters have influenced how people view and think about nature’s power. There are few people I have met in my travels in Peru who believe that they can control nature. Earthquakes are common in Peru, and have had a devastating effect here.

In 1970, perhaps the worst modern earthquake in the western hemisphere occurred in Peru, killing an estimated 70,000 people and leaving over half a million people homeless. The Peruvian Highlands city of Huaraz, where I currently live, was leveled. A city about an hour north of Huaraz called Yungay, was swept over in seconds by an avalanche triggered atop Mt. Huascaran. Among the 18,000 people living in that city, almost all were killed in seconds. My wife’s family were among a handful of survivors in a small town called San Marcos (also nearby) that was completely devastated by the earthquake.

I bring all of these things up, because I have personally witnessed how much the people in the Highlands Region of Peru, people like my parents-in-law, have ritualized their respect of nature into their culture. Last month in Huaraz, a festival in honor of the earthquake patron saint was held for a week in entirety. In traditional dress, every day local citizens marched through the city dancing and playing instruments in honor of El Senor de la Soledad (Our Lord of Solitude). Each smaller community in the region also holds events and dances of these kinds.

I doubt that these kinds of cultural understandings and respect for nature’s power are unique to Peru. In addition to providing people with a greater respect for nature, natural disasters probably also build cultural bonds through a shared experience, and consequently therefore strengthen community ties and heritage.

2. Natural Disasters Give Communities a Chance to Improve Infrastructure and Re-Prioritize Community Needs

In regard to this potentially positive aspect to natural disasters, it’s hard not to think of New Orleans, Louisiana, and other places in the American South that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2006 2005.* I’m not extremely familiar with how much progress has been made, but I remember reading about countless opportunities that were presented after Katrina to do things like rebuild shoddy homes, provide new jobs and health services to impoverished communities, and improve natural, ecological buffers so that a disaster on this scale could not happen again. I even remember that Brad Pitt received some publicity for co-sponsoring a sustainable design competition to help rebuild the city in a positive manner.

In Huaraz, Peru after the 1970 earthquake, buildings were constructed with a greater emphasis on anti-seismic measures. The adobe buildings that typified Huaraz prior to the earthquake did not tend to survive the earth’s movements. Now in Huaraz, beauty takes a backseat to safety, as the buildings and city are not extremely attractive. But these improvements to buildings show that the people of Huaraz have re-prioritized their own safety over aesthetics. The Peruvian government also in response has built preventative retaining walls and dams around and near high alpine lakes. Overflow from the lakes was largely responsible for causing huge mudslides immediately after the 1970 earthquake.

3. Research Has Shown That Natural Disasters Might Have Some Positive Ecological Effects

Did you know that hurricanes and tropical storms help distribute the Earth’s heat? Without the transfer of this heat from the Tropics to the Earth’s poles, climates might get totally out of whack. Large storms and the tremendous amounts of rainfall they bring with them are also beneficial to ecosystems and human agricultural needs. Researchers from Duke University’s School of Environment and Earth Sciences also say that without hurricanes, barrier islands on coast lines and their ecosystems would not survive. Of course while these are some positive benefits, it should be noted that hurricanes and the flooding they can cause might affect ecosystems negatively and, of course, harm the lives of a significant amount of people.

Fires are another natural disaster that can benefit ecosystems. They can eliminate unwanted invasive plants from certain ecosystems (but can also help spread them), enrich soils with fresh nutrients, and encourage greater plant diversity. Animals are also sometimes attracted to the new growth in fresh burn areas. Some plants are even dependent upon fire for their seeds to sprout in the long-term, and use fire to their advantage.

Are There More Positive Things to Say About Natural Disasters?

As I wrote in the very beginning, my intention is not to dismiss and disrespect the human suffering caused by natural disasters. But seeing as that almost every day the media reports depressing news and stories about natural disasters, it seems like a good thing to consider the potential positive sides to these events. In addition to the three major benefits I have written about ( 1. people gaining greater appreciation for nature, 2. the chance to rebuild communities positively and re-prioritize needs and 3. the potential benefits to ecosystems), are there other positive aspects to natural disasters that you can think of? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Photo Credit: GISUser.com on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

* The article originally stated incorrectly that Hurricane Katrina occurred in 2006.




15 comments
  1. iman

    good point good view…
    though these are future prolonged view…
    about population control its totally immoral consider ur family were the victims 4GODSAKE!
    -respect for nature would be by quiting or decreasing the rate of actions that can induce or trigger natural disasters…
    -consider using sustainable energy and not harmful for our nature or environment
    – the generation of new job fields like volcanology.. seismology…meteriologists..chaser for storms & lightening….
    -tourrisim inducing like HAWAII volcano city park that’s a big proof!
    -scientific discovery of new facts…consider discovering the bacteria that was very old w exist many zillion years before when life began…that would lead 2 answer the question of earth origin..consider also medication extracted from these bacteria genes that look much like ours…

  2. eric y

    well, living out here in the middle of nowhere kansas we are fully cognizant of the danger that might someday face us as the great funnel from above swoops down but jay whitlow has prepared an adequate storm cellar and he is just hoping that he can awaken sammie and drag him into it if needed before sinclair takes to raising his fists to heaven.

  3. The upside to natural disasters? - The Environment Site Forums

    […] The upside to natural disasters? Three ideas about what might be some positive consequences of natural disasters. The Upside to Natural Disasters : Planetsave […]

  4. Jger

    9-11 made it obvious that an idiot was elected as president and that some radical changes are required to restore the country.

    In cities that aren’t well insured, there’s not that much good that comes from disasters. When there is a high rate of insurance, a disaster causes the inflow of insurance and reinsurance funds from around the world to the city, which gives it a chance to refresh infrastructures & buildings as mentioned above. Provided the devastation isn’t total, it can have a direct positive effect.

    Anyways Levi, thanks for having the guts to write an article about something that most people are a bit short-sighted about.

  5. S.o.G

    The Three Positive Benefits of Colossal Idiots

    1. Colossal Idiots remind us that although we may be little better than monkeys in pants chasing after some form or other of virtual banana, at least we aren’t a Colossal Idiot. Thus, Colossal Idiots help us to feel better about ourselves.

    2. In a world of increasingly scarce resources, Colossal Idiots are rather more likely to find a way to divest themselves of their share at some point in their existence — thus resulting in more to go around for us.

    3. Colossal idiots are entertaining. Sure, the entertainment value of derision is inferior to that of inspiration, but derision by acting as a counterpoint to inspiration serves to make inspiration feel that much more valuable. Thus, colossal idiots, by acting as a focal point for derision, actually improve the level of inspiration in our lives.

  6. Robin

    i know this seems like a harsh and immoral subject, but…
    population control.
    like it or no, the world is going to reach a point where there is literally not enough food to feed everyone. we dont need 4 kids per couple, no matter what country or background we’re from, and we would be better off as a species if we didnt have to compete with each other to get enough food. people will say “…but everyone deserves to be able to have kids, we will find a way to make it so”, but what it comes down to is the fact that we are killing other species so we can have more comfortable lives. lemmings and other numerous animals will kill themselves off if there are too many to be able to maintain the current population with the food in the group’s given territory, and they have brains the size of grapes. are we really as smart as we think we are, or are we dumber than rodents when it comes to the survival of our race?

  7. Manny

    I thought about this too. Just recently Leonardo DiCaprio started the greensburg project. They are remaking the town into a full fledge green powered community. The fact that from the ashes of disaster can rise a phoenix of opportunity, knowledge, and hope provide an upside to these sad events.

  8. LL

    “…a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the
    rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind;

    and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake;

    and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire;

    and after the fire a still, small voice.”

    — 1 Kings 19:11-12

  9. web design company

    OK, the title scared me. I wondered can this author really be promoting such tragedy. But then I saw that the author clearly spells out his position on the suffering, but is looking for what possible good can come from such havoc.
    A worthwhile read…worth consideration.

  10. WetBankGuy

    The New Orleans Experience:

    * Provides an opportunity for the permanent relocation of undesirable elements by removal of the infrastructure supporting them (affordable housing, public health care, public schools)

    * Offers an opportunity for quick and easy profits for politically connected in no-bid recovery contracts.

    * Provides a compelling cover story for the expansion of activities that contributed to disaster (look, they survived, let’s drill for more oil and forget about the wetlands).

    What do you think are the upsides of the 9-11 attacks?

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