Two weeks ago, I mused on the impacts – structural, emotional, spiritual – of a massive earthquake hitting Los Angeles. I said that in my fantastical quake, one in which none were injured or lost property, we all could learn a thing or two about the city in which we live.
A large-scale disaster, I supposed, would demand from us a sense of community and humility in the face of the glorious impermanence of life. And then the fires started.
At a given moment, there were at least eight major fires burning in Southern California, and more than a million people displaced from their homes as flames licked their doorsteps. Hundreds of thousands of ravaged acres, burning and billowing spires of smoke into the skies could be seen quite terrifyingly and spectacularly from satellites looking down upon the Pacific Coast.
This was a genuine disaster of epic proportions, with lives lost and livelihoods ruined. You know the situation is dire when Arnold Schwarzenegger calls for backup.
Yet I am proud to say that the response I could only have imagined a mere two weeks prior became a startling reality across the southland as apathy turned to action, haughtiness to heroism. For every nastily smug story about stars being forced from the comfort of their Malibu homes or report of a deranged arsonist came 10 more tales of honest-to-goodness heroism and selflessness: volunteer emergency responders venturing into the burning areas, citizens opening up their homes to affected people and pets, relocation areas distributing kosher foodstuffs, even math tutors, yes, math tutors offering services to the displaced free of charge.
Volunteers were turned away from San Diego High School because the makeshift shelter was overflowing with donations. The nightmare even brought out a relatively rapid response from the much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Fresh off the anarchic disgrace of the Superdome in New Orleans, FEMA representatives were again on hand amongst the newly homeless in the local sports complex, here Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, to observe a shocking abundance of food, beds and volunteers.
George Biagi, deputy press secretary to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, noted in an interview to CNN, “We have the luxury of being able to count on our neighbors.”
Not a typical SoCal statement, but one greatly appreciated as a testament to the resolve and generosity of the residents facing the seriousness of the situation at hand. The home of the Chargers hasn’t seen this much activity outside the regular season in a decade.
And listen to Malibu Mayor Pro-Tem Pam Conley Ulich’s comments at her news conference, “It’s a horrible day, but it’s also a beautiful day because you get to spend time with your family.”
Provided that your family is safe and together, by all means follow such advice. It’s ridiculously cliché, but it’s true: things are just things; possessions can be replaced and a house may burn, but your home is wherever your family can be together.
Call it fire-enforced family values. Eat your heart out, James Dobson. Let me join the chorus of voices offering my condolences to those who have lost while reminding all of us that it need not take blizzards of sparks and gusts of ash to inspire empathy. Let this extraordinary spirit of camaraderie and cooperative perseverance never be extinguished, but let us also never forget what makes this SoCal: who was among the volunteers at Qualcomm Stadium, having cancelled his paying customers and offering out his services free of charge?
Masseuse David Thomas, manning his station and opining to the Washington Post, “We’re kind of like the holistic first responders.” There’s no place like home.