Southeast of Disorder

California Burning
October 26, 2007, 2:32 pm
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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.