The United States has been struck by arguably its worst natural disaster in its history, and so far, the death toll is about 60 people.
For them and their loved ones, that’s everything, of course. But were a flood of Hurricane Harvey’s magnitude to occur in some parts of the world, the toll would be in the thousands. In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, flooding occurring at the same time has killed more than 1,200 people at last count. According to the online Quartz magazine, August floods and mudslides in Africa killed 1,240 people, more than 20 times Harvey’s toll. In Sierra Leone by itself, an August mudslide killed more than 1,000.
Harvey’s comparatively low death toll is notable but not shocking. Arkansans have long experience with tornadoes that cause tremendous property damage but little loss of life.
People can differ in their explanations for all this, but the nation’s wealth, freedoms and values clearly are a factor. The United States has poverty but not squalor – not teeming masses living in cardboard slums perched onto hillsides. Our structures usually are built on strong foundations using good material and away from flood-prone areas. That’s the result, partly, of those government regulations everyone is always complaining about. When a disaster does occur, we have the resources to rescue the victims and then care for them in churches, convention centers, sports venues, or wherever. If the local hospital is flooded, a hundred others can accept its patients. Because we live in a relatively uncorrupted society, we know that the mayor’s warnings can be trusted and that most offers to help will be legitimate. Because we decided long ago to be a United States and not merely a collection of feuding allied states, a disaster affecting a corner of the country becomes the concern of 300 million people who can pool their resources to help those in need.
The purpose of the preceding paragraph is not to inspire a rendition of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” Nor is it to elevate mankind beyond its proper place. It’s to help us conduct an accurate SWOT analysis.
“SWOT” stands for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats.” Businesses and organizations are encouraged to perform this type of analysis periodically and unemotionally, giving each of the four areas proper consideration.
Unfortunately, these days it seems most analyses of the American “organization” are limited to the “W” and the “T,” and often hysterical in tone. Based on what we hear, read and say, you’d think this is a horrible place to live – its freedoms degraded, its people persecuting each other, its health care unavailable to most, its elections rigged, its government flying planes into buildings and faking mass shootings.
Thank goodness there are no limits to how much we can complain, even baselessly. However, that kind of gloomy, exaggerated discourse is perhaps the most dangerous threat of all. We make bad decisions when we inaccurately magnify weaknesses and threats while ignoring strengths and opportunities. We lose faith in our institutions, most of which, as we’ve seen in Houston, still work pretty well. By remaining in a constant fight-or-flight state, we become fearful and distrustful of each other. As we blame others and look for scapegoats, we become vulnerable to pied pipers who play on our fears and prejudices. Then they’ll lead us on paths away from the very freedoms and prosperity that limited Harvey’s death toll.
This hurricane showed the best of America more than the worst, though you can find the worst if you’re determined to look for it. A proper SWOT analysis would take it all into account.
It’s vital to do so for many reasons, including this: Natural disasters happen all the time, and they don’t care where our cities are located and how prepared they are. In fact, Hurricane Irma is headed toward the eastern United States as I write this.
That’s an approaching threat. Let’s identify that one correctly, and others, while taking into account the nation’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.