According to a recent Quarterly Report on Fire and Water Damage, there were 437,878 parties thrown in the continental United States over Memorial Day weekend. One such party took place in Lincoln, Nebraska, in a multiplex at the corner of A and 13th Street. At approximately 10:15 PM, a burning cigarette landed in a pool of kerosene in the basement. Within fifteen minutes the entire party was consumed by fire.

All across this land of ours there are people throwing parties. Beer flows from kegs, highballs poured at the bar. Car keys are thrown in glass bowls. Music flows from the stereo: jazz, calypso, blue grass or rock-and-roll. Someone always goes into the pool. Others soon follow, their clothes tossed in piles. At the pool table, small fortunes are wagered on a single game of 8 ball. There is usually an equal distribution of men and women. Such a party is by all accounts a success. According to the report, approximately 1 in 3,000 of these parties will be consumed by fire.

The best laid plans of men are frequently the blueprints for single family houses. The construction begins with excavation and the pouring of the foundation. After the house is framed, floor and ceiling joists are installed, walls are put up, concealing pipe and wiring. Over the dirt is laid a fresh green lawn. Hedges and trees are planted, statuary raised in the flower beds. A family moves in and parks its cars in the garage. In the control group, 50,000 of these houses will be constructed in the coming year, for 50,000 families. In the coming year, 16 of these houses will be consumed by fire.

The most congenial place that one can imagine for a picnic is the bank of a river on a summer day. Over Memorial Day weekend, there were 27,261 picnics held on the banks of rivers. One, held on the shore of a river that winds through the mountains of Idaho, and on which there were 97 picnics along a 10 mile stretch, was washed away by a flood after a dam burst, submerging the entire valley, and 96 other outdoor parties, under 60 million metric tons of water. Another, held on the bank of a narrow, slow moving river in Iowa farm country, consisted of two dozen hamburgers, three dozen hot dogs, two cases each of Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon, and a half-rack of MGD. The river was running higher than normal, forcing the picnic up closer to the adjacent field. The farmer who owned the land burned his fields every other year. This was such a year. The smoke wafted over, mingling with the smell of charred meat from the smoldering barbecue pit. By 3:15 PM, the entire picnic was consumed by fire. Consistent with the numbers projected in the report, 273 of these outdoor parties were destroyed by water, or suffered severe water damage. 2,365 more were consumed by fire.

On the eve of the new year, cars lined the winding drive as music blared from the house perched high on the cliffs above. By 11:15 PM three-quarters of the guests had arrived to celebrate over 2000 years of modern living. Champagne corks popped at the stroke of midnight. The guests exchanged New Years kisses. Some stayed in the basement and played pool, only coming up for box wine. The sound of noise makers drowned out the television. The chips-and-dip, the Cheetos, the nachos, overflowed from glass bowls. By the stroke of midnight, 96.9% of the guests had arrived. By 12:25, 23% of those in attendance had left and gone home. At 12:45 the entire party was washed away by a tidal wave.

The party in Oklahoma began as many do, with the sending out of invitations. At one point, things started to get so hot that the festivities spilled over into several other trailers nearby. The stereo was set up outside, next to the spit. Lawn furniture flanked the cooler. The chorus of opened beer cans sent up a frosty spray into the dry Oklahoma dusk. The music carried out over the plains, along with the smell of sizzling meat. A man in a tank top massaged his tattoo. Another man in shorts bared his stomach to the setting sun, as a woman in cut-offs juggled a cell phone and a baby. The pork and beans flowed like wine. From out of the south a thunderhead appeared like an anvil in the darkening sky. Mistaking the sudden dip in atmospheric pressure for a brief lull, many in attendance were delighted to witness a surprisingly quick return to form before the party, and most of the community, were swept away by a tornado.

Last year, over 1,500 parties were destroyed by tornadoes. More than 3,500 were destroyed by hurricanes and unclassified super-winds. The details of these events will appear in a subsequent report on damage by air. The Quarterly Report on Fire and Water Damage is a catalogue and a caution. The case histories included here from our records are a testament to the remoteness and improbability of damage by fire and water, but are also a demonstration of its inevitability: 1 in 3,000, 13 in 2,368, 8 in 64,421, X out of all tomorrow’s parties will be consumed by fire, your next party, or one just like it. The Quarterly Report is a statement of the limits of environmental catastrophe, a catalogue of human negligence, and the statistical realization of catastrophic death.


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