Durand: Disasters don't happen hereBy Michelle Durand
Disasters happen in other states, other countries, the other end of the television news channel. Disasters are wildfires in Southern California and annual hurricanes in the Caribbean and earthquakes in seismically questionable Third World countries. There are floods in North Korea, tsunamis in Thailand, school campus shootings in Virginia, terrorist attacks in New York City.
Disasters happen there, not here.
When they happen there, those here respond with aid. Regional emergency responders and firefighters speed off to bolster local ranks with manpower and equipment while those in the serene Bay Area suburbs spring to action giving blood, donating money and organizing fundraisers.
That's not to say residents of San Bruno and the Peninsula don't know tragedy. Every day there is at least one person whose world is shaken by death or foreclosure or any number of personal calamities. Less often, there are the more public heartaches, the car accidents and plane crashes and Caltrain fatalities. Yet even these don't cut a swath through the entire community, leaving some fallen and others barely standing both figuratively and literally.
Certainly those here plan for grand-scale, life-altering events. They attend disaster preparedness days and assemble kits with food and water supplies. They make the children practice getting out of the house when the smoke alarm goes off and submit emergency contact information to schools and employers.
But they also joke about when The Big One hits, still feeling safe and secure. They forget to change the batteries in the emergency kit every year and might not know even if they still have power. They roll their eyes when officials at the scene of other misfortunes speak of how survivors are grateful and immediately thanking higher powers that they belong to that particular community.
After all, their world was just turned upside down. In the middle of twisted metal and hastily abandoned teddy bears, loved ones in the hospital and roll calls of the missing, is the first thought really gratitude for where they call home? When the ground buckles and the skies roar, cursing one's location seems a more likely reaction.
Disasters happen in places where the adjectives awful and catastrophe mean things quite different than the weather, the state of baseball or commuter traffic. When you say an area is hellish there, a city is leveled, a neighborhood has floated away, scores are missing or dead. Those are what disasters are. Those are what happen to other people in other towns.
Disasters don't happen here.
Until they do.
When they do, a disaster is suddenly not something ignored by a switch of a channel, or sympathized with from afar. A disaster isn't the stuff of headlines and tax-deductible donation checks. At that moment, a disaster is what is outside the front door - if there is a front door left to peek through. A disaster is telling the same story a million times for curious reporters and letting acronyms like FEMA and NTSB roll off the tongue in every-day conversation. A disaster is that delicate balance of feeling lucky that you were untouched while recognizing others were not so fortunate. A disaster is also learning what mettle people are made of, what they'll do to help and - sadly - sometimes how they'll take advantage.
A disaster becomes part of a person's and a community's history and therefore part of its future.
Sept. 9 is burnt into San Bruno's narrative, proving that disasters do happen here.
Thankfully, so does recovery.
Copyright ©2010 San Mateo Daily Journal. Published 09/14/2010.