Thursday, October 25, 2007

Renewed Memories

Five years ago I stood on my neighbor's front porch across the street watching flames and thick black smoke rise from my roof. When it was over, my garage and its contents (including my beloved and almost new Honda Goldwing motorcycle) were destroyed and my house was considerably damaged from fire, water, smoke, and holes firefighters had punched in the ceiling to fight the fire. These memories have been revived by viewing news media reports of the devastation left by the fires now raging in Southern California, and they likely enable me to empathize with the victims of these fires more than can someone who hasn't been similarly victimized to some degree.

However, I was much more fortunate than some of these recent victims probably are. Since my house was not destroyed, I was able to move back into it after three months. The Red Cross put us up in a motel and paid for our meals for several days afterward until we could move into a nice and nicely furnished apartment while my garage was being rebuilt and my house repaired. My insurance covered everything. And we eventually moved back into a house that was in far better shape than it was before the fire. I had a new and improved garage, a new roof, a new paint job inside and out, and new carpeting. All of this home improvement undoubtedly gained me tens of thousands of dollars more from selling the house less than a year later than I would have received otherwise. Unfortunately, my girlfriend at the time was not so fortunate. She lost cherished photos and family heirlooms that no amount of insurance money could replace.

But I can well imagine that some in Southern California are not as fortunate as I was. Some have lost everything but their lives, and it will take far longer than three months before they can move back into their homes. Some may never be able to move back in because they were either uninsured or underinsured.

I hear some, as always happens at times like these, blaming the victims for their misfortune. They should not have lived in the dangerous areas they did. They should have known that they were at serious risk for what ended up happening to them; therefore, they don't deserve any sympathy or help. Or so the argument goes.

But where should they have lived instead? Where can people live that is free of any threat of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, rising seas, and other natural and man-made disasters, and what would these few-and-far-between places be like if everyone moved there?

I used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of the reasons I left was to avoid the danger of catastrophic earthquakes. I moved to Sacramento thinking I was relatively safe only to find out, after hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, that Sacramento is universally considered to be the most flood endangered major metropolitan area in the entire country. I can't afford to move to anywhere else right now, and even if I could, where would I go that didn't present its own set of potential dangers?

My heart goes out to the people in Southern California displaced by fire. And those intrepid firefighters and dedicated Red Cross and other relief workers have my unbounded appreciation and admiration for their extraordinary public service.

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