Stunning vistas and recent storms

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Paying the consequences for ignoring geological advice

By Kirsten Peters

Here’s a classic poem that’s dear to me, both for its manic intensity and its meaning in the natural world. It’s so short you can memorize it right now and always have it at your disposal when you consider news of storms and their destruction.
“Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!”
The poet was Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her lines always come to my mind when heavy rains ravage the West and homes, bridges and roads are swept away by mudflows and flash floods.
The poem seemed apt as California recently experienced torrential rains that triggered debris flows in canyons. Cascading down the steep hillsides, boulders, trees, mud and water flowed rapidly downhill, imperiling houses and those who lived in them.
As usual, there were reports from the people who had built houses exactly where we geologists would predict the debris flows would be the worst.
They had traded safety for the stunning views of living in the steep canyons of southern California.
In so doing, they had not built upon the rock, but on the sands of impermanence. When the land above their houses started to move, they instantly knew the significance of their choice.

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