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Essay

Pantry Check

Empty shelves, shaky ground and the human impulse to deny the next disasterBy Rebecca K. O'Connor

November 06, 2005|Rebecca K. O'Connor | Rebecca K. O'Connor is a freelance writer living in Banning.

I took a good look in my pantry yesterday. I have enough soup and refried beans to last two days. There's a six-pack of water and a half a box of crackers, both of which would be gone by tomorrow if something happened today. I have no spare batteries, which isn't a problem because I don't own a battery-operated radio. If we have a natural disaster here in Southern California, I'm going to have to watch the sky for smoke, listen for the sirens and depend on rations from the Red Cross. I live right smack between two active fault lines. A devastating earthquake is inevitable here in somebody's lifetime. Still, I just can't bring myself to stock my shelves.

My attitude confounds even me. I just finished organizing and editing a reference book titled "How Should the World Respond to Natural Disasters?" The irony of writing the introduction as Katrina was barreling toward Louisiana did not escape me. Having read similar scenarios for months, I saw Katrina as an excellent example of denial. The National Weather Service was predicting that the storm would be downright apocalyptic, but many were clinking glasses in revelry throughout the French Quarter. I was appalled.

My attitude is different since I started the book. I now believe in natural disasters. I am certain of nature's ability to wipe us off the map. Reading numerous reports on disaster and the ensuing relief gave me a clear visual of what Katrina could do to the low-lying Crescent City and the coastline. I imagined New Orleans flooding to the rooftops, and wondered how we would communicate needs and emergencies with all the infrastructure annihilated. I worried over everyone who stayed, clueless about how storm surge and broken-levee water could drown even historic cities, as if nature had force and intent.

Katrina turned my visions into images on television. I was startled by video of thousands waving from rooftops, clinging to their last possessions, which often included a stalwart dog that the helicopters would leave behind. I gave money to the Red Cross--something I have never done for any disaster. I listened as my similarly moved friends spoke of gathering supplies in their SUVs and driving off to heroism. I adamantly instructed them with lessons I had learned in my research--to stay out of devastated areas unless they were trained or on an organized mission, to keep their holey blankets and old shoes to themselves. Just give their money. The Red Cross was going to need it.

Most of my thoughts about disaster relief now involve mitigation and preparation. I've told anyone who will listen that we need to be more serious about the possibility of natural disasters. More than 900,000 people in the U.S. live in sections of the Pacific coastline that are no less vulnerable to a 50-foot tsunami than Indonesia was last December. There also are earthquakes, floods, fires and massive storms such as Katrina and Rita in our foreseeable future. We should improve building standards in disaster-prone areas that are home to the poor. We should protect and restore natural features that help defend the coastline from storms. We need to plan, from FEMA on down to the city level, and drill for every eventuality. Then we, as individuals, need to prepare for the worst.

But I'm not setting much of an example.

I have health insurance, car insurance, homeowner's insurance; I even have insurance for my dog. I get regular checkups and go to the dentist twice a year. I spent $2,000 trimming the ancient pines in my frontyard just in case one of those widow-maker limbs succumbs to the Santa Ana winds. I'm a planner to my core--a planner with great ideas and an empty pantry.

I've been asking my friends about their pantries and have noticed a trend. They have canned pumpkin from last Thanksgiving, and a lot of baked beans and canned spinach their kids wouldn't eat even if they were starving. It sounds as if we're all going to be rationing toilet-tank water, with the exception of my dad. He has quite a stockpile of unwieldy jugs of bottled water, which he has delivered the old-fashioned way. If I can get to his place after the earthquake mangles the roads, my dog and I might not die of thirst. He's got only canned green beans in his pantry, though; I might choose to eat dog kibble if there's enough to go around.

I think I know why some folks who could leave New Orleans stayed, and why so many who evacuated left everything behind, certain that their possessions would be unscathed. No one wants to believe that nature has it out for them. Holding that idea in my head makes my gut churn and my heart ache. I surely believe in natural disasters. I just don't believe they'll happen to me.

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