The week the earth stood still

When normally sober and stoic scientists start draining the barrel of awful superlatives to describe a summer day off the Gulf Coast, it’s time to pay attention.

On Monday, most of us were still trying to fathom what 9 trillion gallons of water would feel like — that hydraulic cube over downtown Houston, 4 miles square and 2 miles high. And then the cube doubled to become the most extreme rain event in U.S. history.

I’ve seen a volcano explode — the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, with 500 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I ran in fear ahead of the flames consuming Yellowstone National Park in 1988. And I spent months talking to the last survivors of the worst environmental disaster in our history, the 1930s Dust Bowl.

None of it compares with what we’ve experienced this past week in Texas. When normally sober and stoic scientists start draining the barrel of awful superlatives to describe a summer day off the Gulf Coast, it’s time to pay attention.

The question is: Will this be our shared moment, when raging nature makes all of us feel small, vulnerable and petty? Can there be a humbling, a dent in our hubris, in The Week the Earth Stood Still? And lest we view everything through our own national lens, more than 1,000 people have died thus far in catastrophic flooding in South Asia, with rain volumes 10 times the usual monsoon.

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I felt small and very helpless weeks ago, when smoke from a surfeit of Canadian wildfires smothered Seattle. For several days, the air quality was worse than Beijing’s. I fled to a mountain summit in the Cascades, looking for the natural air-conditioning that usually flows in from the Pacific. No relief. I could barely see the valley below.

No amount of bluster or wealth or denial could buy you a cleaner breath of air in the city for those few days. From Bill Gates to the homeless woman sleeping under the freeway overpass, we were stuck in that bowl of awful air together.

I was hopeful that the total eclipse of the sun, when the star that brings life to our planet was briefly blocked in a swath of totality from Oregon to South Carolina, would be a moment of shared standing down. I thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line in “Gatsby,” as he summons up a sailor gazing upon North America long ago, “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for…

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