The Face of Disaster

In a chilling series of photographs featured in the New York Times, the scale of the tsunami in Japan is brought to heartrending light. It shows what the affected areas were just a few months ago. And then it shows how the entire landscape just got wiped out in a few minutes. In one-half of the picture, life when it was normal. In the other half, the sheer trampling of everything built over decades. Development is a slow process and destruction is swift is what these satellite photos register with searing impact. We are on the cusp of evolving the grammar of visual information. Words don’t do justice to what just happened. TV images of cars and houses hurtling through a torrent of viscous muck stun, but they don’t take you back in time to what life was like before the disaster. Move the slider from one end of the picture to the other and get the enormity of what people on the ground would have gone through. The third largest economy in the world, with a reputation for rebuilding from the ashes of the second world war, now looks at doing it all over again.

We’ve seen the stacks of planes and cars, littered like matchsticks, looking more like miniatures rather than actual objects. One continuing theme has been that even though Japan was better prepared, as it had anticipated a ‘big one’ for years, the fury of the quake and the resulting tsunami was far beyond anything that human structures and systems could have stood up to. Citizen’s videos posted on YouTube brought home how people experienced the devastation. When it started, most people assumed that it was like the many quakes that Japan goes through each year. While there is panic, there is also a sense that things will settle down.

The earthquakes in Haiti and China played out in the media for a few days before they were consigned to the archives. But like the Kuwait war was the forerunner of the 24-hour news channels, this may just be the beginning of a data mine that contains some nuggets of permanent change. And while people pick up the pieces and attempt to get back to building their lives, we have got a close up of the face of disaster. And unlike the movies where a band of heroes saves the earth, we are at the mercy of nature far more than we realise or even contemplate.