Disaster is in the eyes of the beholder
t 1Disaster is a relative term. To a high school senior, a freakish case of acne prior to the prom is a major disaster. To the IT professional, a wayward rat biting through a
cable can invoke disaster. But I’m sure neither of these individuals would ever slide the scale of definition to the disaster setting if they had lived through a natural catastrophe. Disaster recovery is in the news again; too soon for some, and not soon enough for others. There is no shortage of talking-head critics who blast those in New Orleans for not fleeing when warned. When the airwaves are polluted with meteorologists who continue to hump marginal weather into drastic images by invoking the Wind Chill Factor, it’s easy to see how their effectiveness is diluted. That’s no excuse to ignore pending hurricane warnings, but it is easy to understand complacency. Not all of those caught in New Orleans were guilty of shaking off the cries to flee the city as the advancing menace of Katrina loomed large and deadly. Sure, some were blasé, but some were simply incapable of escape.
Unfortunately, I was among the blasé May 13, 1980. I stood in my recording studio with Ahmet, an engineer I was training to assist me in overdubbing complex sound effects into commercials. I had just finished a voice-over for an ad that was to be broadcast all over Michigan, and Ahmet and I felt a giddy euphoria as we listened to the evolving 60-second spot.
We were in the bowels of what was known as the Industrial State Bank (ISB) building in downtown Kalamazoo, a few yards from the historic gargoyle-laden fountains and historic oaks of Bronson Park. The building manager rushed into our isolated studio. “There’s a tornado warning. One’s been spotted west of here. Get to the basement now!”
Her face was split with panic, and the plaintive tone of her voice suggested something far beyond caution, but we didn’t read it as the threatening doom that we should have. She turned on her heel, and set about the task of clearing the seven floors above the studios of WQLR-FM where we were encamped on the second floor.
As soon as she left, Ahmet and I shared a mutual shrug, and put our headphones back on and hit the play button. After all, this is Michigan, arguably on the fringe of Tornado Alley, and tornado warnings occurred every summer. None of them had ever amounted to anything more than a strong breeze in Kalamazoo, at least not since 1939, so we settled into the complacency of disbelief and ignorance.
I had made many miscalculations in my life up to that point; scaling a water tower and bellowing from the apex, jumping from the third floor of a building into a pile of sawdust, driving into a gunfight, and bouncing down to 250 feet in scuba gear, daring The Bends to take a piece of me.
However, none of those boneheaded moves resulted in morbidity. (Hence, I’m still writing this column.) But, the closest I came to seeing The White Light was that tenth-of-a-second error in judgment in 1980. Ahmet and I heard a thunderous, slowly escalating cacophony starting at the lower bass range, and moving up to tenor, as the Doppler effect became a real-life punctuation to the point that death has a voice. We now exchanged looks of a different sort, and skated quickly to the windows.
Let me create an image for you. Have you seen The Wizard of Oz where the wicked spiral weaves across the prairie in a serpentine pathway, soon to sweep Dorothy’s farmhouse to the Land of Oz? Now, picture the same cyclonic shape weaving down the main street of a substantial city, and you are looking at it 150 yards away, and making a beeline towards the building you’re standing in.
“Damn! Let’s get the hell out of here!” I was already at a dead sprint for the central staircase, and Ahmet, not endowed with my raw, adrenaline-infused speed, was 10 yards behind. I entered the staircase and found an impossibly dense mass of humanity that were considerably more attentive to the warnings, and had already packed the narrow landings. Now, I’m a very composed individual, so I was as cool as a Rocky Mountain breeze when I hit the staircase. Unfortunately, the 400 other people jamming the stairway had a greater sense of urgency. I decided that pressing myself against the railing was the best bet to avoid a Close Encounter of the Worst Kind.
Of course, I didn’t anticipate that the tornado would hit the building head on, and turn a nine-story building into an eight-story building in 20 seconds. Now, the problem with the roof being ripped off such a large building is a hell of a lot of glass comes crashing down…and it was raining down the central staircase, and this eventuality was not warmly received by the frenzied throngs already wedged into the narrow confines. As soon as the deafening noise of plate glass filled the stairway from six floors up, panic went through the crowd like a crack of lightening, and the race was on. Moving as one, the human mass abandoned all sense of reason and decorum, and made a crazed dash for the basement. I flattened like roadkill against the railing and held on to keep from being knocked over into a freefall to the landing below where I was sure to be trampled like a prairie dog in a buffalo stampede.
But the sound stopped suddenly as the tornado passed through our building. I exited at the main floor as people tried to crush those in front of them into the basement, and headed out through the lobby of the namesake Industrial State Bank. The scene was pure Steven Spielberg. As I walked out of the bank, high voltage lines writhed on the pavement sending flashes high into the air. People lay in the streets bleeding, and screams and wails were coming at me in a bizarre stereophonic assault. Trying to take it all in, I looked ahead, and saw two busses crammed into each other; compressed to the size of one. Across the street, oak trees, hundreds of years old, were plucked out of the park like dandelions. Less than 120 yards to the east, the side of the Gilmore department store had been ripped off, exposing and then sucking occupants to their deaths.
I rushed to the curb to help a lady covered with blood until paramedics arrived minutes later, and then went back toward the building to get back to my co-workers to determine if they were dead or alive. This was another grievous error. The ISB building is completely aseptic in that the windows are permanently sealed. Well, that is until the ungodly pressure differential of a tornado hits it, then it becomes a meteorological IED. The pressure had dislodged or knocked out 98 percent of the windows, and those that teetered in their casings fell like 300-pound guillotine blades; one crashed 20 feet in front of me with a terrifying explosion. Looking up, I timed a dash into the building between plate glass showers to get back inside, and to the second floor. The offices of the broadcast studio were flattened, and I looked around to see Alvin, an ex-professional hockey player, climbing out from beneath sheetrock and landscaped cubical walls. No one was hurt in the offices, but several other deaths occurred in Kalamazoo that day. My own father was in a condo complex parking lot when a friend yelled at him to hit the deck. As he did, a car tumbled stem over stern in front of him. He survived, but five died, and the damage was estimated to be $50 million in 1980 dollars.
WQLR was part of the Civil Defense network, and each day I showed my pass to National Guard troops in the evacuated downtown so I could get to the studio to broadcast emergency information. Grim troops with M-16s waved me through so I could park in front of the decimated building to get to work.
We tend to think of disaster recovery in IT terms. That is, what does happen when that rat eats through a cable, a disk drive crashes, or a toilet near the computer room overflows? Is that it? Is that a disaster? I hope that your corporations have data recovery plans … of course I do. The loss of critical data directly and indirectly can cost staggering amounts of money, and the livelihood of a great many people.
But when I think of disasters, my frame of reference is a psychic tattoo that remains 25 years later. When you stare into the eye of a beast that eclipses any preconceived notion you held of the actual force of nature, well, the loss of a few files seems ridiculously fallow.
I hope that all of you take my word for it, and don’t actually live it. The carnage and toll in real life is beyond the capacity of human imagination in true disasters. Trust me that this magnitude of calamity is best experienced vicariously, and if any of you feel the twinge of complacency when the talking heads on television scream with a tinge of ratings-boosting drama, head for the hills.
Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He can be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.