Is it possible for disaster to become routine?
When the fires broke out in 2017, it seemed like an unimaginable apocalypse, like the world as we knew it was ending. Nobody, not even our leaders and first responders, seemed to know exactly what to do in those first few hours and days.
Residents facing evacuation had a range of reactions, from fleeing at first sign of a glow on the horizon to a hell-no-we-won’t-go fit of heroics as flames approached their homes.
Two years later, the fringes of the disaster zone had a very different vibe. Mostly, people seemed to be saying “Oh, no, not again.”
And then wearily picking up their belongings and moving to safety.
My home in Calistoga never was under a formal evacuation order this time – just an “advisory” that hinted that such an order might come – and yet it seemed like many people just threw together some clothes and documents and headed out of town without being ordered to do so. My own family decided to come down to Napa on Sunday to stay with a friend, the same friend we had stayed with in 2017, when Calistoga really was under a mandatory evacuation. Just like in 2017, we were lucky to have a comfortable place to go and an accommodating host who was happy to see us.
I did a much better job packing for this evacuation than the last one—hardly a detail missed, though I did wish for a better variety of shirts. But on the whole, I pretty much knew what to grab and how to cram it into the Jeep.
Staying in Napa, I was reminded every day of how sweet it is to have a 5 minute commute, rather than a 45-60 minute one. My son was delighted to have access to a big city internet connection, which makes our small town broadband seem positively prehistoric.
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In my newsroom, the staff moved through the various stages of disaster coverage with efficiency and skill, hardly even needing a light push from me.
It all seemed so, well, ordinary and familiar.
Growing up on the East Coast, I got used to periodic hurricanes. Evacuating, or just hunkering down while the storm passed, seemed like no big deal.
But hurricanes are slow and stupid, and except for the occasional monster storm, they’re not excessively dangerous if you take some basic precautions and don’t happen to live right on the water.
This fire thing is much scarier. It strikes without warning, and moves fast. It requires the strenuous effort of firefighters to control, and even with a skilled crew on the lines, there is still a fair dose of luck involved in surviving unscathed.
And yet, still we somehow manage to adjust and make dealing with fire – and its new companion, the “Public Safety Power Shutoff” – seem normal.
I really hope this isn’t the new normal, but if so, it seems we’re getting pretty accustomed to it already.