This will be one of my rare blogs outside the field of cycling. I’m reflecting on our unusual experience of emergencies this week, seismographic and meteorological. In the post-9/11 world of America, everything even slightly upsetting makes us jittery. We have taken to telling people to “take care” and “be safe” as routine expressions of concern. Emergency Preparedness experts thrive, taking up valuable positions on staffs of institutions like the federal government or the local community college whose salaries could otherwise be spent to further the actual mission of the institution. When a potential emergency arises, such as the Tuesday earthquake or yesterday night’s tropical storm, the media coverage is over the top, before (except for the earthquake), during, and after the event. Do adult human beings need this much “alarming,” “disturbing,” and condescending information and advice? Does an objective assessment of events justify such a level of ginned-up anxiety?
When the earthquake hit Jane and I were enjoying a late birthday lunch on the screen porch on a perfect August afternoon. The whole think lasted 30 to 45 seconds, but it seemed longer because it took a few seconds to realize what was going on. Here “back East” we have little personal experience of earthquakes. Jane had been in a small one years ago; I had never been in one. So everything happened in slow motion, as they say it does in critical moments. We began with immediate reflex reactions: we grabbed our wine glasses and the wine bottle so they wouldn’t spill. (First things first. And anyway it was good wine, a Linden Avenius Sauvignon Blanc. We weren’t about to let all of Shari’s and Jim’s hard work go to waste.) As the rumbling got more and more intense, we began wondering when and if it would lessen. About the time we were starting to conclude we needed to “do something,” it began to subside. All this in a matter of three dozen seconds. Later we wondered what we should have done. I would have gone for a door frame, but it turns out that’s an old wives’ tale. (Guess those old wives were Easterners too.) Jane has a couple of friends who were lunching together at a restaurant, and they both immediately dove under the table, having lived in earthquake-prone regions earlier in their lives. They were apparently the only ones who did the “right thing.”
Rightly or wrongly, life in our region was essentially back to normal in a matter of minutes. Yes, buildings had to be inspected and cleared, but no public buildings around here were found to be uninhabitable, except the National Cathedral, built according to medieval design and construction principles. But Emergency Preparedness concerns resulted in the dismissal of all federal workers for the day, the closing of many institutions, including the community college, the creation of major traffic congestion, loss of time, and disruption of routines. “Did the earth move”? The kind of answer you get to that question depends on whom you ask, and under what circumstances.
As for Hurricane Irene, she did not live up to her billing, and we’re all glad of that. Every TV station in DC sent a reporter and crew to each of a series of strategic points along the coast, from Kill Devil Hills in NC to the Jersey Shore. All last evening they were on, preempting the entire broadcast schedule to report in turn, south to north, that “the storm is easing up here,” “the storm is pretty bad here right now,” and “the storm hasn’t really gotten here yet.” Oooh, aaah, eeeh? There were the usual cuts in and out as the power supply to the cameras and mike fluctuated, the attempt to make a breezy rainstorm look like a gale-driven deluge, and the like. Long story short, we watched empty and wet streets, swaying traffic lights and flapping stop signs, boardwalks getting pounded by surf, and sand blowing. It was as bad as the usual banal reality show. After a half hour you had seen everything there was to be seen, and updates from the studio were accompanied by the endless loop of file footage that usually repeated three or four times during each update.
Meanwhile, the Emergency Preparedness gurus had evacuated over one million people along the east coast. The Governor of Virginia threatened criminal charges against anyone who refused a mandatory evacuation. I could see his point obliquely when two kayakers had to be rescued from the waters off Staten Island, NY. People like that should be fined the amount of their own rescue expenses. Most of the storm fatalities were people doing unsafe things. But I guess my thought is that adults have the right to be unsafe, as long as it doesn’t deplete the public till. Safety is not the ultimate criterion for happiness or fully human living. In fact, crouching in fear as a response to every threat robs people of their humanity. I applaud the spirit that motivates surfers to don their wet suits, kayakers to take to the water, walkers to stroll under swaying tree limbs. Even when disaster is the result, they have challenged their limits, lived life to the full and without fear.
So we are fascinated by the very dangers we fear. Most of us are drawn to them vicariously, by watching TV reports on disasters. And because Emergency Preparedness has primed us to expect the worst, we are disappointed when we don’t get that. On Friday I was in Home Depot, and noted several crates of sump pumps being moved into position to sell. New supplies of water bottles were set up. The battery supplies had been wiped out. I didn’t even investigate the plywood situation, being there for non-emergency purposes. EP wanted us to have three days’ supply of food and a gallon of water per person per household. We were fine in each regard, except that for us it was wine, not water. The reality of the storm was that the highest sustained winds in the western suburbs were never above 30 mph, that the total rainfall in Vienna was about 2 1/2″, that Saturday night was just a breezy, rainy night like many another. Now that’s how we saw it, but people without power (we had one evening flicker and one longer outage during the night), or the folks on Ross Drive whose house was badly shattered by a falling tree, would have other ideas.
Even along the coast, Irene was never more than a Category One storm. Forecasters were saying that it was a Cat. 1 storm with Cat. 3 pressure gradients. Since gradients create wind, I don’t see how that’s possible. At any rate reportage was trying hard to make the storm sound worse than it was. When it neared New York City this morning, Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm. The disappointment in the voices of the TV anchors was audible. “What, I’ve been up all night just to report on a freakin’ non-hurricane?” “Better emphasize the local flooding or folks will think we’re making too much of this.” Al Roker was on some splashy boardwalk on Long Island doing his weather shtick, but I have observed bigger waves and more dangerous winds as a passenger on a ship in New York Harbor. So EP shut down the entire East Coast for a Category 1 storm that didn’t even make it to New York City as a hurricane? What happens when a real Category 3 or 4 storm comes along? Are people going to take it seriously, or in the great phrase of Washington Post columnist Jeanne McManus are we suffering from too much “preparedness fatigue.” Perhaps the dire measures taken for this storm should be saved for truly dire circumstances, and people should be allowed to make freer adult choices about lesser emergencies, without the hectoring, nannying hyperbole of those obsessed by their own expertise or having a vested interest in communicating “alarming” phenomena.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.