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California is experiencing the effects of this morning’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan that caused a tsunami to sweep away cars, ships, and buildings 250 miles northeast of Tokyo.  The waves made their way through the Pacific Ocean and threatened Guam and other U.S. territories, Alaska, Hawaii, and the West Coast, reminding us we are also vulnerable.

This morning, President Obama assured Americans that “FEMA is fully activated, coordinating with state and local officials to support these regions as necessary.”  He also stressed, “if people are told to evacuate, do as you are told.”  The latest television reports from Santa Cruz, California show people lining highway bridges to watch the water rock and rip boats and yachts from their moorings, proving that human beings cannot help but marvel at nature’s remarkable strength.

Today, my students wrapped up our discussion of the U.S. government’s response (including FEMA) to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina event.  They have been reading articles, giving presentations, and looking at web-based slides and photographs, so that they could be informed of natural disasters in order to think of new ways we can respond to them humanely and with greater efficacy.  They came in today ready to continue our discussions but mostly ready to share their insights into this morning’s devastating earthquake.

Instead of being paralyzed by shock, the students had thoroughly informed themselves of today’s disaster.  They knew the earthquake’s epicenter, its magnitude, the effects of the waves, and the possibilities of tsunamis making their way to America’s shores.  Being informed is the first step to forming a thinking, reliable work/think-force in the future that can respond to natural disasters.  A real life example of educated youth saving lives occurred in 2004.  Ten-year-old Tilly Smith and her family were vacationing in Thailand when she saw warning signs in the water that she had learned in school.  She managed to convince her family and other beachgoers that a tsunami was on its way.  They escaped the beach just before the tsunami waves hit.

The waves that unsettled the West Coast today remind us that we are not separated from the rest of the world.  My thoughts go out to the victims in Japan and to the people on the West Coast who are bracing themselves for possibly more waves yet to come.  I hope this time the U.S. government gets it right, and responds efficiently and effectively.

We should all be reminded, as Suheir Hammad writes in her poem “On Refuge and Language,” refugees do not only exist in places like Haiti, Rwanda, or Japan; we can be displaced too.  Though we are often quick to respond to the global community in times of need, we must also remember that we are, at times, also vulnerable, and we will, at times, also need rescuing.  In 2005, we looked away from those most vulnerable, but Mr. Obama has promised vigilance and immediate responses in aid to Japan and California.  As Hammad reminds us, “Do not look away / The rest of the world lives here too….”

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