No one would argue, it’s been the season for natural disasters.  Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Katia struck like balls in a batting cage, wham, wham, wham.  In the middle of that ferocious fortnight, Mexico suffered a gigantic earthquake. (For perspective, the San Francisco quake that struck during Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, termed “massive”, was 6.9.  The earthquake in 1906 that destroyed 80% of San Francisco was a 7.8.  Mexico just rocked an 8.2)

Under-reported due to the severity of the hurricane season, an unusually long and intense fire season has blackened much of Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, and Utah… and the fires are still burning, making the air dangerous to breathe.

Do you feel battered yet?

The magnitude of natural disasters is making many people stop and re-evaluate what’s really important in this life.

Natural disasters make us realize that we are not the ultimate power in the universe. No matter how smart we are, how much money we have, whatever our political agenda, we are all tossed about equally by titanic natural forces such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

Could these reminders of our contingency awaken us, as a society?

Perhaps.  One reason for hope is that a disaster tends to re-focus our hearts on the most important things.

Catholic writer Walker Percy even thought that hurricanes might be therapeutic to the human spirit. “Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, N.J., on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?” and “the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?”

Percy’s answer implied that a disaster like a hurricane focuses.  We’re no longer aimlessly slogging through life; we’re focused.  We know what’s essential.

For instance, there is ample evidence that birth rates spike after natural disasters.  Life, love, and family rise up as the most important things when survival becomes critical. If you are seeing with TOB eyes, the reason is quite evident.  At our core, we are persons intended for love and union.  The stresses and glamor of modern life may thoroughly distract us when we are at leisure, but when the blinders are blown off by a catastrophe, we remember.  We remember who we are and what we are made for.

It’s a strangely moving phenomenon, this embrace of life.

Researchers found, for example, that in 1990, the year after Hurricane Hugo struck, marriages and births spiked in the counties of South Carolina most affected by the storm.  The following year, 1991, the rates and trends returned to their level prior to Hugo, making it apparent that the spike was hurricane-induced.

In 2010, an 8.8 earthquake struck central Chile, followed nine months later by a baby boom. “We have found a marked increase in obstetric consultations in the areas most damaged by the earthquake,” Chilean Health Minister Jaime Mañalich said.  

Likewise, after Haiti’s devastating quake in 2010, the fertility rate tripled in urban areas.

The greatest natural disaster of our time was the Indonesian tsunami of 2004.  Human loss was estimated at between 175,000 and 230,000 (the remoteness of some areas made it impossible to calculate definitively.) Death rates were highest among young children and older adults unable to swim, and women of prime age, who sacrificed themselves to save their children.

Survival also depended on family composition. The presence of men in the household made it more likely that others in the family survived.

We saw a flicker of that dynamic recently in Houston, when this photo went viral:

There have been hundreds of moving photos from Hurricane Harvey, but this one has been dubbed “The Snapshot of the Storm” due to its universal poignancy.  This man is not the father of the family; he is the SWAT officer who rescued them.  But in his masculinity, he bears the woman, who is smaller and more vulnerable than he is, and she shields and shelters the baby, who nestles into her protectiveness.

Why does this so broadly and deeply move us?  It is a picture of who we are, of the primeval family.  A disaster the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey strips off the banality and foolishness that have accreted on our society like venomous barnacles.  We see with new eyes what has been there all along: our real identity in this world.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip (used with permission)

AP Photo/David J. Phillip (used with permission)

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

After the Indonesian tsunami, which saw some villages lose 80% of their inhabitants, the fertility rate increased terrifically in the hardest-hit areas.  Women conceived at a higher rate, and childless women began to conceive sooner.  Men who lost their wives remarried and enlarged their families.  As a result, the devastated provinces now have a decidedly young, and therefore hopeful, look.

It’s not that everyone rushes to conceive children after a natural disaster.  Maybe it’s buried deeper in our nature than that. Maybe when our illusion of control fractures and falls, we can hear the call to union, the call to give and receive and bear fruit.

It’s the blueprint at the core of our being.


Sheryl Collmer writes for TOBET in Irving, Texas.

All photos have been properly credited. Hover over each photo to view attribution.