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I'm Just Sayin': Flood's a sobering reminder of earth's power

Earlier this month I caught the end of a Science Friday program on NPR that included some pretty depressing predictions about the future of humankind.

The theme of the program, which featured author Cormac McCarthy, filmmaker Werner Herzog and physicist Lawrence Krauss, was about how art and science converge to inform us about the past, present and future of the universe.

One of the three guests, I think it was McCarthy, said he didn't think Earth would include humans at some point in the not-too-distant future. It might be 500 years or 1,000 years or 2,000 years, but he said he didn't think humans have what it takes to keep the species going beyond a couple more millennia.

I was reminded just how vulnerable our species is over the weekend when my wife and I traveled to the Fargo-Moorhead area to watch our daughter, Abby, perform in a community theater play.

The Red River had crested a week earlier, so flood waters there had begun to recede. But large chunks of the two communities — parks, soccer and baseball fields, golf courses — are still under water.


Folks in the Red River Valley have established a pretty good drill over the decades. In years when there's been heavy snowfall, they put in place an impressive emergency management system that involves hundreds of thousands of sandbags, lots of heavy equipment, permanent and temporary dikes and ready manual labor from three colleges.

My daughter — who lives in Moorhead, where she's a student at Minnesota State University, but works at a YMCA in Fargo — said that one day, when she went to work, she took a street near the river that was closed two hours later when she drove home because a temporary earthen dam had been built on it. It had taken less than two hours for workers to build a 4-foot-tall, blocks-long soil dike. In a week or so they'll remove it just as quickly. Pretty impressive.

My brother and his wife lived in Fargo for more than 20 years, and in April of 1997 I spent a couple of days at their house while I was covering the massive flood and related fire in Grand Forks, N.D., that destroyed much of that city's downtown. While staying at my brother's home, which was not far from the Red, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a siren and a firefighter on a loud speaker announcing that a sandbag barrier had given way at a home a few blocks away. Help was needed to repair the breach. By the time we had pulled on some clothes and hip boots about three dozen neighbors had arrived to help out.

It was a sobering, yet heartening, experience. Sobering because I realized how vulnerable these homes and these people were to the forces of nature. But heartening because it was one of the most impressive shows of human compassion — people sacrificing sleep and working themselves to exhaustion to help folks they didn't even know save their homes — I'd ever seen.

As hard as we try, we can't control nature, at least not for very long. We can build dikes and dams and reservoirs in places like Rochester that keep our city safe from flooding. But when it rains for days at a time like it did last summer, our basements still get soaked. And there's little we can do to protect our homes from tornadoes or straight-line winds or lightening strikes that fell trees on them.

Floods and tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis are all permanent reminders that we humans are just temporary custodians of the planet on which we reside.

We humans like to think we're special when it comes to our custodial care of the earth. We know it's not good to pollute it and scar it and cover it with garbage. But we do it because, well, we're a little arrogant, selfish and greedy sometimes.

As we approach Earth Day on Friday, I'm reminded of a quote attributed to American Indian Chief Seattle: "The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth."



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