Tuesday, October 23, 2007

First Impressions Of Disaster

Nature's to blame.

My home town is burning and hundreds of thousands of people are refugees in San Diego County. My own home is unaffected because it's located inside miles of residential neighborhoods far from the brush that fuels the fires in Southern California and the canyons that provide pathways for the fires to travel. Well, not completely, there's a canyon across the street but it's surrounded by neighborhoods. If it burns it will be from arson and the fire won't have a clear path of dried brush to travel far. It's not development that leads to wildfires. It's nature.

Locals make all the difference.

San Diego's response to the fire has been professional and effective. Volunteers, private organizations, and government have worked together to save lives and take care of the thousands of displaced persons in the county. Katrina was the nadir of disaster preparation and response in our country. The response of state, county, and city officials to the fires here shows that local, not federal, preparedness and response is the most important factor in fighting disasters. We will need the feds to help with recovery. But it's the local authorities who have gotten us through the disaster itself.

Sports facilities are a civic benefit.

Evacuees have gone to sites all over the county and to homes of friends and family. The place that houses the most evacuees so far is Qualcomm Stadium. Qualcomm is where the San Diego Chargers play football. The stadium has been the center of controversy for what seems like forever. It's an old facility that has seen better days. The Padres got out and the Chargers want to build a new facility. San Diego's financial problems make it virtually impossible for the city to chip in for the building of a new stadium at that site. And political opposition by government officials opposed to government subsidies of sports teams is surprisingly strong here. So the Chargers are looking to build outside the city in Chula Vista, a town to the south.

City officials may want to rethink the value of having a large stadium inside the city. Qualcomm Stadium is centrally located and far from most danger. The use of the facility to house thousands of evacuees comfortably demonstrates the value of having a large sports facility inside San Diego's city limits. It may be worth sharing the cost of building a new football stadium with the Chargers to have the facility available for disaster relief.

Wall to wall news coverage.

Local radio and TV are both the best and the worst sources of information in this disaster. On the positive side, the coverage has kept us informed of events. The fire coverage has been 24/7 on radio and television and crews have fanned out all over the county to bring pictures and sounds of the fire and devestation, as well as the announcements of local officials. On the negative side, the coverage tends to get sensationalistic. Much of the county has been in danger from these fires. But there are large parts of the county that are unaffected by the fire except for the thick smoke in the air. If you only paid attention to the pictures and the interviews you would think that every neighborhood in the county is either burning up or in imminent danger of doing so. But maps that show the fire's progress help the most when you're trying to learn whether you're at risk or not. The fires have gone straight to the west both north and south of the central parts of the city of San Diego. The people in the center are at little risk. But you wouldn't know it from the coverage. There is one notable local exception.

The weatherman at KUSI Channel 51 is John Coleman. He's an older guy notable for goofy antics and science questions while still being a knowledgeable meteorologist. He was the only weatherman and news reporter on TV all day yesterday who accurately predicted that the winds would die down and that the weather would work to prevent the fires from reaching the coast. Everybody else was reporting the prediction that the fire would reach the sea somewhere around Del Mar. It's looking like that won't happen and that Coleman was correct.

Nature is bigger than us.

Humans have come a long way in 60,000 years. We live in a great civilization, highly developed and technogically advanced. But this fire shows that sometimes the only thing we puny humans can do is run like hell and get out of the way. It's looking like we're turning a corner against the fire today. And why? The weather is calming down and making it possible to bring all our resources to bear against the fire. We'll see what happens tomorrow. Pray for us, cross your fingers, or wish us well, whatever your beliefs allow.

People are better than you might think.

Most people want to be part of the solution, or at least get out of the way of those who have the solution. Only a few people tried to take advantage of the disaster by looting or scamming. A few others decided they knew better than professionals and disobeyed evacuation orders. Public opinion turned on those holdouts fast as reports came in of firefighters leaving the front lines to rescue people who refused to evacuate. When the evacuation orders came the vast majority of people complied. Thousands of people then offered time, supplies, their homes, and money to help those in need. San Diegans pitched in to help. When push comes to shove people come through.


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