We all know that person. If it's 105° at your house, it's 110° at theirs. If you get two feet of snow, they've got three. If your gallbladder bursts, they get pneumonia. It seems like a basic human instinct to try to one-up each other, but the world would be a much better place without disaster snobs.
One-upsmanship is common and even fun!, especially in the context of sports or academics or every sitcom father trying to erect a bigger and more elaborate display of Christmas lights than his elderly neighbor. But in the entire realm of things that could be a competition, natural disasters should be three rungs below Furby collecting.
The internet gives users anonymity and the detachment of the keyboard, generally allowing them to be a more horrible person than they would be "in real life." Every time someone writes about tornadoes in the south, people rush to be the first to make a snide, ironic remark about the disaster being payback for gay marriage or whatever screwy thing Republicans did this week. Disasters in blue states elicit the same response from equally horrible people on the right.
But almost worse than those blatantly idiotic statements are the people on the outside looking in who try to downplay the incident. They see the death and destruction and brush it off as insignificant. That's crossing the line from being a general internet jerk to a pretentious disaster snob.
Each region of the country experiences its own set of difficulties. The Gulf Coast is susceptible to hurricanes. The north gets its fair share of snow. The west frequently sees droughts and earthquakes. Hawaii has tourists wearing socks with sandals. When a particular region sees a natural disaster that's relatively uncommon for the area, people are rightfully shaken up by it.
The August 2011 earthquake in Virginia is a perfect example. The earthquake was a magnitude 5.8, which is pretty big for anyone east of the Rockies. Given the geological makeup of the Mid-Atlantic and the shallow depth of the quake (at just four miles), the rumbling was felt far and wide and it produced a fair amount of damage. Californians almost immediately laughed at easterners, brushing off the damage and rattled nerves with the typical refrain "oh, we sleep through those!"
The same people who brushed off the damaging Virginia earthquake freaked out over the 6.0 that hit Napa this weekend. "Oh, but that was stronger!" they say. Sure, we'll give you that! But admit that you changed your tune because it hit you instead of someone else. It's disaster snobbery at its finest.
Then there are the winter storms that affected the Deep South earlier this year. I was in my final semester at the University of South Alabama in Mobile (just a dozen miles from the Gulf) when we had the region's biggest winter storm since 1993. The system dropped almost two inches of sleet on the City of Six Flags, which promptly froze into a solid sheet of ice when the storm topped it off with a glaze of freezing rain.
Nobody was prepared for the event because it had been nearly a generation since the area last saw any respectable winter weather. The northern Gulf Coast isn't equipped with salt or shovels or even plows to deal with a coating of snow let alone a two-inch-thick sheet of ice. I took the above picture near the center of campus the day after the storm — it took me 30 minutes to walk 3,000 feet from my dorm to that spot. It was a mess, and we were quite literally stuck inside for three days.
When images of Alabama gridlocked by an inch of snow and Raleigh, N.C.'s flaming snow car hit the internet, northerners yukked it up, laughing at those southerners who couldn't handle a little bit of snow and ice. Gizmodo's Editor-in-Awesome Brian Barrett had a thing or two to say about that back when Birmingham dealt with a similar situation a few weeks earlier:
But if you're making light of the situation, or more realistically using it to reinforce your view of the South and the people in it as full of backwards blubberers, you are an asshole. It's hard to remember sometimes, but things are different in places you do not personally live.
When it snows where you live, the salt and the snowplows are out on the streets before you even wake up. When you talk about six inches of snow in your city, you are almost definitely talking about six inches of snow on the median strip and shoulder, and highways that are slick, but clear. I'd take that over two inches of snow and ice on every major road any day.
The disaster snobbery comes from all sides, and just like "friendly" teasing, everyone gets pissed off when they're the target of the derision. You're used to earthquakes if you live in California, just like you're used to tornadoes if you live in Alabama and you're used to being buried up to your eyeballs in snow if you live in Buffalo.
Throw a tornado at San Franciscans or trigger an earthquake in Birmingham and the residents of each city will lose their collective minds. Having the ability to deal with disasters native to where you live doesn't make you a special buttercup, that just means you've adapted to the environment in which you live. Congratulations! You're a citizen of earth. People who aren't used to non-native disasters are going to react differently from you.
Taunting and teasing people who can't handle a major natural event you're used to doesn't make you superior in anyway, it makes you a pretentious disaster snob, and that's the worst type of pretentious snob there is.