Southeast of Disorder


California Burning
October 26, 2007, 2:32 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

An acquaintance posted a very thought-provoking item about the fires raging in Southern California, along with an impassioned plea for aid for the victims. His item was so thought-provoking, in fact, that although I intended only to write a brief response, by the time my own apparently until-then-submerged feelings about the subject finished implanting themselves on the page, I had written more than he did.

I’m still not sure I’ve explained my position well. It’s a thorny issue, and as usual, I find myself on more than one side of it.

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I, too, feel for the people in SoCal’s blazing acreage, but there are some things bothering me about the situation, too. Please don’t think I’m heartless, but….

Is the media catastrophizing just a tad? I appreciate their death-defying feats in covering the disaster, but honestly: Is it necessary for HOUSTON television stations to send staff reporters all the way to San Diego to cover the fires in person instead of relying on feeds from affiliates who already are there? “Look! A disaster that conceivably could affect someone living in Houston! Let’s send several MORE bodies out there to get in the way!” Sheesh.

The national media aren’t really helping, either. Yes, they do put “a personal face” on the disaster by interviewing those affected, and they have given the rest of us information we can use to help, but seriously: Relentless, 24-hour coverage using the same footage ad nauseum only leads to battle fatigue among viewers. There’s a very real risk that eventually everyone will tune out any sort of legitimate reportage as just so much additional noise.

As for the victims themselves, my heart goes out to them. I cannot even begin to imagine losing everything I own in one fell swoop. Hopefully, people and animals will evacuate safely, and physical goods are insured. Those who could not afford insurance desperately need and probably deserve our help. Those who could afford it but chose not to invest in it hopefully have learned something about planning ahead. Let us all hope that some portion of the ridiculously high personal income taxes Californians pay is set aside to assist in emergencies like this one. (I know I can think of no better use for the non-resident income taxes I pay in California!)

Just as those of us along the Gulf Coast realize some day The Big Hurricane will catch up with us, people in Califonia know there is the possibility that one day they’ll be caught in a massive fire, earthquake or mudslide. Whether they choose to admit that to themselves is another matter, just as it is here. The people I know in California all recognize the specter of disaster that looms over them constantly, and they dread the day it may become terrifyingly real – but they don’t deny the possibility, and they plan ahead for unpleasant contingencies. When one chooses to live in a known danger zone, one does so understanding the risks.

One particular interview on CNN continues to haunt me: A young-ish woman surrounded by her four young children told the reporter she had received a telephone call the previous night alerting her that she needed to be prepared to evacuate immediately upon receiving a follow-up call. The follow-up call came at 6 a.m. the next morning, and the young woman said all she was able to scramble around and gather was her children, some blankets and a few clothes. What I’m wondering is what she did in the hours between the first and second calls. I know I should feel bad for her, but I’m having a little trouble drumming up tremendous sympathy. Of course, I don’t know her complete story. Perhaps she was paralyzed with fear and indecision.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying we shouldn’t help. OF COURSE we should help anyone who finds himself or herself in unfortunate circumstances for whatever reason. I guess after two years of Katrina/Rita aftermath (which to this day remains unresolved for hundreds of thousands of the poorest all along the Gulf Coast, not just in New Orleans), I am saddened and angry about the way media, government and profiteers shamelessly exploit these events for personal gain. We need to look beyond the sensational headlines and avoid knee-jerk reactions that are helpful to no one.

OK – you may all set upon me now with pitchforks and burning brands.



“It Snuck Up On Us”
September 13, 2007, 7:43 am
Filed under: Galveston | Tags: , , , , ,

When you live on a sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico, there are five words you do not aspire to hear from professional weather watchers: “It snuck up on us.”

Hurricane Humberto did exactly that early Thursday morning, surging into a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour just before striking the Southeast Texas coast slightly northeast of Galveston at about 1 a.m.

Humberto was an indolent storm, lollygagging across the Gulf at about six miles an hour for most of Wednesday before engaging in some serious Galveston sightseeing late in the afternoon. Sustained winds were only in the 50-60 MPH range at 9 p.m. If Humberto had come ashore then as forecasters predicted instead of insolently gamboling about over the water for a few more hours, it would have remained a tropical storm. It might have whacked a few more trees on the island, possibly sent a few more inches of water under shop doors on The Strand, maybe slightly damaged a building here and there …

… but it would not have become the dreaded “H word,” which tends to send people here into a panic. You would think because we’re all very aware we live on a sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico (and we take perverse pride in thumbing our noses at Mother Nature), everyone might simply shrug and go on about their lives. Some people, however, allow hysteria to overcome them and they behave as if any hurricane’s arrival represents a monumental surprise. Given Galveston’s history, that’s just bizarre. After all, despite Katrina visiting her wrath upon New Orleans in 2005, Galveston remains indelibly inked in the anals of history as the site of the worst natural disaster ever to strike the U.S.: the 1900 Storm. (Crews stopped counting bodies at 6,000, and what once was called “the Wall Street of the Southwest” literally was swept from the face of the planet in one night of unimaginable terror. Erik Larson’s excellent books Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History and The Drowning of Galveston and the History Channel’s chilling Isaac’s Storm provide harrowing accounts of the disaster.)

Some of us, of course, consider hurricanes one of the unfortunate trades we must make in order to live in what passes for a tropical paradise roughly two miles off the coast of Texas. No matter how unpleasant it may be when she actually does slap us in the face, usually Mother Nature behaves herself quite politely around here. (After living in California’s San Fernando Valley and Glasgow, Mont., I can attest to the occasional hurricane being infinitely preferable to unpredictable earth shaking and predictable snow drifts higher than houses. I’ll take the hurricanes, thank you very much.)

What never ceases to amaze me is the broadcast media’s morbid fascination with violent weather. For the past two years, at the vaguest threat of bad weather, Galveston has found itself under siege by news vultures who insist upon standing on the seawall and yelling into microphones as video cameras capture them being doused and buffeted. Venerable Dan Rather started the trend during Hurricane Carla in 1961, and since then every talking head with any ambition has imitated his death-defying feat in hopes it would propel him or her to similar national prominence. It hasn’t, and those of us who live here think it’s a particularly silly thing to do. (“What are you, nuts?! Get down from there and go inside before someone has you committed! Sheesh…. Talk about not having enough sense to come in out of the rain.”)

Even more annoying is the implication people can’t wait for another Katrina-like disaster to liven up the daily news — as long as they don’t have to endure the unpleasantness personally. A man died in High Island (site of the storm’s official landfall northeast of Galveston ) during Humberto, and there was “significant damage” to property in that area from wind and water. High Island residents remain without power, and the roads are impassable due to downed trees and power lines.

As one local weatherman (excuse me: “meteorologist”) noted, “[Galveston] dodged a bullet this time,” but our sighs of relief are accompanied by someone else’s sobs of despair. Celebrating our good fortune would be terribly inappropriate.