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Afghan soldiers rescue villagers from flash flood in 2010. Photo: US Army/Flickr

How the World Falls Apart

Paul Cox and Stan Cox

Not all at once but in millions of cataclysms small and large that strike somewhere everyday.

Afghan soldiers rescue villagers from flash flood in 2010. Photo: US Army/Flickr

When six inches of rain fell in two hours on Ellicott City, Maryland on Saturday evening, it was, according to the National Weather Service, a once-a-millennium event.

To Kelly Secret, even that distinctly Biblical label didn't do this disaster justice. In the story she shared with a Washington Post reporter, the Main Street resident and her boyfriend found themselves trapped in her upstairs apartment; while the creek rose behind them, "a torrent of raging, brown water was devouring Ellicott City's historic downtown."

Secret told the Post, "The whole house shook. We thought we were gone." They made a dash for the front door, where they found not the escape route they'd expected but a deep sinkhole that had just opened up at their doorstep. Finally, they were saved by a rescue team using axes to hack through the wall of Secret's apartment.

By the time reporters arrived in Ellicott City, apocalypse had already given way to post-apocalypse. Main Street was scoured into a canyon; dazed survivors picked their way around upturned cars. More than a hundred lives had been saved by rescuers and human chains, and two lives were lost.

Just five weeks earlier and 280 miles away by road, a broader deluge had descended on southeastern West Virginia. A train of storms had brought up to a foot of rain to narrow Appalachian valleys, sweeping away thousands of structures and causing 24 confirmed deaths.

What happened to these places meets every reasonable definition of apocalypse—except for scale. There were more than enough awful sights and strange inversions. Diners in a restaurant watched cars, and their drivers, sweep into and out of view. Nearby, the torrent ripped the foundation out from under a hair salon but left its front window pristine, lined with bottles of shampoo. In the valleys of West Virginia weeks earlier, a blazing house floated through a town;a woman caught a monster trout in the middle of the street; a family held a barbecue of ruined tax records.

Why is Armageddon always imagined as something that has to happen across the whole planet at the same time?

In the two floods, communities were shorn temporarily from the rest of the country and permanently from a present that has become their past. It wasn't the end of the world, but to use the usual qualifier, it was the end of the world as they knew it.

To use the term "apocalypse" in the wake of these disasters may sound a little hysterical. The world, of course, goes on. But so what if it does? Why is Armageddon always imagined as something that has to happen across the whole planet at the same time?

For some Marylanders the waters descended and the ground opened up last month, but right now it's the end of the world in some other place. Even writing at the speed of online publishing, we know better than to venture a guess as to where that is.

To get a feel for how many similar catastrophes are happening almost daily, it's not enough to follow the news. Headlines give the impression that normal life is punctuated every few weeks by a disaster: July's Maryland flood and June's West Virginia flood followed May's Fort McMurray fire, which came after April's crazy rain in Texas. Terrible stuff, but only a dozen times a year. One could get the impression that Mother Nature is taking breaks between disasters to hate-watch campaign coverage along with the rest of us. But she's not.

If you really want to keep an eye on the world of chaos we inhabit, subscribe to a bulletin service like the Global Hazards Weekly Bulletin, which is emailed weekly out of a London office called Public Health England. We learn from last week's round-up, for example, that floods and landslides were assaulting 9 million people in China; twin mega-wildfires were raging in northern and southern California; Kuwait was broiling in a 129-degree heatwave; much of India's Assam State was underwater, with 1.2 million people left homeless; a freak heat wave in Siberia thawed the carcass of a dead reindeer, releasing a fatal anthrax outbreak on the local population; a tornado blew the roofs off of 200 houses, 100 shacks, and a shopping mall near Johannesburg; a nationwide drought had become a "matter of life and death" for 4.5 million rural Zimbabweans; and Typhoon Mirinae was wreaking massive destruction in Vietnam.

In May, the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction completed a year-long campaign called 365 Disasters in which they tweeted similar disaster reports coming in from network members. The challenge of finding a disaster a day turned out to be no challenge at all; they finished the year at a count of 663. A landslide in Laos; a quake in Quito; wildfires in Washington—you could make a really awful children's alphabet book out of the year's carnage.

These were the sorts of events people call "natural" disasters, but that term has been rightfully tossed away by most disaster researchers. In recent decades, it has become very clear how little about these events is natural. The loss of life and property to climatic or seismic hazard is a deeply human phenomenon, and, increasingly, even the hazard itself is at least partly of human origin.

The floods in Maryland and West Virginia were not unprecedented, but such disasters are becoming more and more frequent in the greenhouse era. The National Climate Assessment recorded a 71 percent rise in extreme precipitation in the region since 1958. Human fingerprints are visible all over this summer's freak storms, and even more clearly in the low-lying areas where homes and businesses cluster along the banks of rivers and streams.

Ellicott City suffered inundation seven times between 1901 and 2011 (although none of those floods were as bad as this). It's also an affluent community where many are prepared to handle such disasters, at least financially. But many others aren't. Before the flood, Kelly Secret had been working two jobs. Now, she told the Post, "I'm not only homeless; I'm unemployed."

Poverty is what really turns an expensive flood into a personal apocalypse, and West Virginia is the second poorest state in the country. When the famed Greenbrier golf resort was badly flooded in June and its annual tournament on the PGA Tour was cancelled, both the golf course and the event were no doubt well insured. Many of the modest houses and businesses making up the surrounding, devastated community of White Sulphur Springs face a very different future. Even among those who have homeowner insurance policies in this economically precarious state, fewer than 2 percent carry flood insurance.

While popular culture dwells on the big planet-wide catastrophe to come, it is easier to ignore the smaller catastrophes that strike somewhere every day

Inequality, landscape planning, and now climate change are all human affairs. That is why it matters how we imagine the apocalypse: it's something we make. While popular culture dwells on the big planet-wide catastrophe to come, it is easier to ignore the smaller catastrophes that strike somewhere every day, ones that are in no way small to those caught in their path.

The writer Evan Calder Williams (in a pun on Trotsky, because he's that kind of writer) called this view "combined and uneven apocalypse". You could simply call it how the world breaks—not all at once but in millions of cataclysms small and large. And those fractures may well be what allow the whole global system to keep grinding along, sustaining a collective fantasy that the end is always near but never here.

Disasters have loomed over humanity throughout our tenure on Earth, but that doesn't mean we should accept anything about them. Each awful ordeal is an opportunity to learn and change, and the enemy of change is the idea that "these things just happen." It's the grand excuse of a global economy that spins off more catastrophes than any storm front. And it means more and more people, more and more often, will be joining the residents of Ellicott City and White Sulphur Springs in the timeless landscape of the post-apocalypse.

Ellicott City Partnership are collecting donations to help Marylanders affected by the flood. Support to West Virginians' recovery can be given through many local organizations; see the list compiled byPhilanthropy West Virginia.

How the World Breaks by Paul and Stan Cox is out now via The New Press.