Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Virginia Earthquake: Cracked Cathedral, No Deaths, Frustrating 911 System

First, the good news.

As far as I've read, nobody was killed in Virginia's 5.8 earthquake yesterday afternoon. Sounds like there weren't even serious injuries.

Now, the bad news.

Folks in America's northeast were shaken up, literally and figuratively; property damage is worse than officials first thought it was, and the 911 emergency system still can't handle a lot of calls at the same time.

Still, as we say here in Minnesota, it could be worse.

What's so Spiritual About an Earthquake?

I suppose the obviously 'religious' angle on yesterday's earthquake is damage to places of worship. One of the high-profile buildings hit was the Washington National Cathedral.

There's a sane, reasonable way to look at a cracked cathedral. I'll get to that after the next heading. I can think of some not-so-sane ways to look at the earthquake, too.

Another 'religious' angle on the earthquake is to thank God - literally - that nobody got hurt. Between falling spires and scrambled schools, it's a wonder we're not looking at body counts. I took a little time out for a quick prayer of thanks - like I've said before, it can't hurt.

A not-so-obviously faith-related aspect of the quake is what it showed about the emergency response system. Seriously, folks, we can't keep hoping that:
  • We won't really need 911 in an emergency
  • Or, if we do
    • Massive disasters will
      • Pace themselves decently
        • With plenty of time between each step
    • Only one person will call 911 for each emergency
I'll get back to that.

Washington National Cathedral Closed for Repairs

The Washington National Cathedral says they'll be closed until August 27. The Martin Luther King prayer service will be at the National Shrine.

Just to make things more confusing, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C. may be 'none of the above. It'd be best to check locally, if you plan to be there.

Cracks in the National Cathedral

The Washington National Cathedral is still standing - but it's damaged. The Houston Chronicle says three of the tower's four spires broke off, and some of the flying buttresses have cracks.

It'll take millions of dollars to fix the damage. Despite the name, the Washington National Cathedral isn't part of the federal government. It's not supported by taxes. So, like they say on their website:
"Today, we need your help to restore this majestic landmark. Please give today to join the efforts of preserving this national treasure."
("Cathedral Shaken by Earthquake" - Help Repair the Cathedral - Washington National Cathedral)
I had to read the headlines twice before I got it clear which of Washington's "national" Catholic places of worship got hit badly. There are two with names that sound sort of alike. To me, anyway:

No State Church

I'm not criticizing the name, but "Washington National Cathedral" might sound like 'evidence' that there's some kinda plot to start a state religion.

Maybe it's my biases talking but I suspect that folks with either of two apparently-unlike attitudes might get the wrong idea about the National Cathedral. Think about it: both the rabidly anti-Catholic 'death cookie' preachers, and the folks who have conniptions each time they see "God" in print, want to protect America from 'those Catholics.' And, lately, from Christians in general.

In both cases, I suppose they think they're justified: the one lot apparently assumes that anything they don't like is Satanic; the other seems convinced that the Constitution's first amendment starts with "Congress shall make no law supporting an establishment of religion, or allowing the free exercise thereof...."1 And that's another topic. Topics.

Rules and the Catholic Citizen

I'm a Catholic. I take my faith seriously. I live in a country where I'm allowed to vote, express my concerns about the government, and even criticize local, state, and national leaders. Most of the time, anyway: we're going through another interesting era just now. More topics.2

There's something to the notion that the Catholic Church has rules about everything:
"It is the duty of citizens to work with civil authority for building up society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom."
(Catechism, 2255)
Bottom line: I can't be 'above such mundane things' as how my country works. (Catechism: 1915, 2199, 2238-43, and more)

Which is why I don't think it's out of place to bring up the emergency response system in this blog.

911, Citizenship, and Being Catholic

I think the '911' emergency system is a good idea: one number that's supposed to be useful for folks with just about any sort of emergency. I remember when it was getting introduced, starting almost a half-century ago.3

I also remember that the '911' system has never worked perfectly. Some accounts made me wonder if maybe equipping everyone with carrier pigeons might be a more swift and effective way of getting help to folks in trouble.

I think one problem the 911 system has is that it:
  • Is
    • Huge
    • Complicated
  • Involves
    • Several government agencies
    • Technology that hasn't stopped changing
In a way, it's a wonder that 911 works at all.

After the September 11, 2001, attack on the east coast, folks in the northeast were not at all happy about 911 and telephone service in general. Particularly folks who lived and worked in south Manhattan: and weren't killed when quarter-mile-tall skyscrapers came crashing down.

The telephone system was adequate, I gather, pretty much most of the time in the area. Except when a lot of folks decided to use their phones at the same time, or some equipment was on the fritz.

Then airliners hit the New York World Trade Center. Thousands of folks started running out of the building. Others were trapped on floors above the fires. A whole lot more saw what was happening on the skyline: and the communications network got overloaded.

That wasn't supposed to happen again.

Yesterday's earthquake was, it a way, a good live drill for the northeast's emergency response system.

Like I said the good news is that nobody got killed.

Whether you call it luck or providence, I don't think we can count on coming away with a few broken buildings and millions of dollars in repair bills next time. I don't know enough about the situation to know what action makes sense - apart from drawing attention to an inadequate communications system.

God Smiting the Unbeliever??

Then there's the 'religious wacko' thing.

I haven't heard some preacher saying that a vengeful God has wreaked terrible vengeance on an evil administration - leaving the White House and Congress untouched. Or maybe it'd be a judgment on those Catholics - and high school students in Louisa County, Virginia.

But I haven't been looking for the screwball end of religious expression in this country. A high-profile, expensive, disaster like this ought to be good for at least a few bombastically 'Biblical' bags of balderdash. Which, sadly, a few folks will earnestly believe. Yet again more topics.

Related posts:
In the news:

1 The 'Bill of Rights,' as first ratified in 1791, starts this way:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
(Bill of Rights Transcript Text,"
There's an interesting discussion of 'the establishment clause' on Cornell's Law School's website:
  • "First Amendment"LII / Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School
2 That 'freedom of speech' thing represents an American ideal: one which is followed to a remarkable extent. With exceptions. I remember the trailing edge of McCarthyism, which is one reason I do not want a return to 'the Good Old Days.'

These days another batch of zealots is over-represented (my opinion) in the federal government. I've harangued about that before:3 This fellow says he's got "the first accurate, documented history of 911" - and he could be right. What I read agrees pretty much with what I remember:


Brigid said...

Missing a bullet point at the beginning of this line: "Technology that hasn't stopped changing"

Plural agreement: "at least a few bombastically 'Biblical' bag of balderdash."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

P.S. So *that's* what set off the bells in the Science Museum. They have this cool system of metal pipes set to different notes corresponding to different geographical areas of the world. Usually they're set to a sort of 'screen saver,' a random tone every minute or so as a reminder that the earth's crust is always moving. But when there's an earthquake anywhere in the world, the corresponding bells go off. I was just coming out of the Collections Gallery when I heard this cacophony from them.

Brian Gill said...


Found, fixed, thanks!

And - yep, sounds like the Virginia quake is what set off those Science Museum bells. It was a big one.

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.