Posted by: kshayes513 | April 6, 2010

Floods and Disasters

Flood waters surround the Warwick Mall in Warwick, R.I., March 31. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Disasters have a movie genre all their own, as well as a literary science fiction genre, the post apocalypse story. But outside of those genres, we creators don’t usually think of disasters. What kind of disaster might happen in your imaginary world? I’m thinking about that because recently I’ve been living on the fringes of a real disaster. That mall in the picture? I work a mile down the road, and shop there regularly.

A week ago, large sections of Rhode Island were under water.  Many people were still cleaning up from record breaking rainfall and flooding in the middle of March, when another storm last week dropped 8 inches in 48 hours. That’s two months worth of rainfall in 2 days.

The Blackstone River playing Niagara, Pawtucket RI. Photo: The Providence Journal, Sandor Bodo

Rivers around the state went on a rampage:  roads and highways flooded, including our main highway, Rte 95; bridges, streets and railroads washed out; electrical substations and wastewater treatment plants fell to the floods, cutting off electricity in some areas, and forcing others to skip laundry, showers and even flushing the toilet.  Hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed beyond repair, leaving thousands without homes or jobs. We were in an official State of Emergency for several days, and the entire state was declared a federal Disaster Area, along with half of Massachusetts.

West Warwick firefighters evacuate residents. AP Photo/Stew Milne

The only thing we didn’t lose was lives.  While many people had to be rescued from houses when the floodwaters rose too quickly, only a few Darwin Award contenders were rash enough to drive their cars or boats into floodwaters, and all were rescued.

After a week of dry weather, 20 roads and bridges are still closed (down from 90 at the height of the flooding), including a few culverts taken out by quiet little streams that most drivers probably didn’t even notice as they cruised over them.  And in almost any neighborhood, you can still see hoses coming out of the basements of half the houses.  I know very few people who didn’t get water coming in somewhere, even if they aren’t near a river.

So what kind of disaster might happen in your world? Would it be natural, man-made, or supernatural? Would human error aggravate the natural disaster (the way we seem to build with concrete in earthquake zones, and put major cities on floodplains and hurricane prone deltas)? Or is your society so good at safety planning that only a really major disaster would overwhelm it? How does the disaster affect the structure of your world’s society? Do those unaffected feel superior because they are safe, or do they rush to help–or to prey on the victims? How much does a disaster derail the lives and plans of your characters?

If you haven’t thought about disasters before, here’s a good place to start: what kind of disaster would be unique to your world, whether in its nature, its cause, or its results?



  1. Hi,

    Your post reminds me of Walter Jon Williams’ The Rift, a disaster that involves worldbuilding. An earthquake disrupts the flow of American society throughout the midwest that breaks apart communication, transportation and social structures. What happens in that situation? William’s crafted a detailed look at the forces in play that hold society or threaten its stability.

    When we design such an event, like Williams, we have to select key characters who are hurt by the event. We have to ascertain which part of the society is no longer helping them with their normal routines and we have to see how their struggles for survival affect other characters.

    Zooming into the lives of a financial expert, a local police official, an engineer and a military responder, helps to show several ways the world has been rearranged. This process requires us to examine each step in the usual routine, and then find how that social system would be replaced by a new construct.

    This process also reminds me of the character selection by Carol Barbee for the TV series Jericho. She focused on a mayor, a medical professional, a young store owmer and a mine owner. These characters allow the story to unfold by examining the key points in the way the world or society is put together with resources and distribution.

    What do you think?


  2. The Rift sounds like a good example of disaster worldbuilding. Jericho, not so much, as it falls into the apocalyptic SF genre. I’ve been trying to think of other examples of disasters in speculative fiction, especially disasters that are part of the story, but not the main focus of the story. The only one I can think of right this second is the destruction of Laketown in The Hobbit, which is depicted with remarkable realism, especially for a children’s book. How about some other examples, anyone?

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