Friday, March 29, 2013

Acts of God, Acts of Man

The massive landslide on Whidbey Island’s Ledgewood Beach neighborhood is national news. The story continues; the area is still unstable.

Thanks to Dan McShane for pointing me to geologist Hugh Shipman and his Gravel Beach blog where Hugh talks about Ledgewood Beach.

A number of places in Puget Sound are similarly unstable when the sand and gravels and clay left by retreating glaciers get saturated by heavy rains and surface water drainage. I’ve lost count how many times the Amtrak line has been shut down this winter north of Seattle because of landslides covering the tracks. But disrupted train schedules are only an inconvenience; losing one’s home and property is a true hardship.

High bluffs erode into the Salish Sea and their materials accrete to build our beaches. it’s the nature of the landscape. In Isaiah 40:4 and Handel’s Messiah, “every mountain and hill shall be made low...”

God gets credit for hurricanes, superstorms, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides... A simple legal distinction is that an “act of God” is an event outside of human control.

An Exxon Valdez oil spill, a Deepwater Horizon blowout, a Chernobyl meltdown are clearly “acts of Man.”

Things get a bit more complicated with an event like the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown after the earthquake: clearly initiated by an “act of God” but screwed up by “acts of Man’s” failure to site, engineer and build the reactor and respond to the crisis.

Those “acts of God” like Katrina, Sandy and Fukushima are terrible and devastating; their aftermaths and the alleviation or prolonging of suffering become the province of the “acts of Man.”

No lives were lost at Ledgewood Beach but property was lost. I assume that the houses that remain threatened by the slide were approved to be built by the county government and, in being approved, makes all of us — the government — a part of dealing with the aftermath of this disaster.

Public and private relief efforts, loss claims and lawsuits usually follow “acts of God” and will continue as long as in our “acts of Man” we are allowed to build and rebuild on terrain that will be swept away by landslides or waters.

Respect those “acts of God;” we can get smarter in our “acts of Man.”

--Mike Sato


  1. Mike,

    There is a post in the Daily Journal of Commerce, by AP Science writer Seth Borenstein,describing the results of a survey "Poll shows most Americans oppose paying for storm-ravaged beaches." Most folks think that the owner should pay for repairs when it's in the abstract. Presumably, views shift for a specific "disaster" that is closer to home. For me the tough question is how to change attitudes on a local basis before a disaster occurs so that we don't end responding in an emotional way to events that are to some degree predictable. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks for your comment. The article can be read here:


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