Wednesday, February 12, 2014

That Distant Rumble

Every morning at almost exactly 6:30, a bird alights on the balcony outside my living room window.  He sings a quick melody, a pass through a whistling pattern of notes, at most thirty to forty-five seconds.  Then he is gone.  The light continues to unfold.  Day breaks.  The bird returns each day, letting me know as I sleepily drink my first cup of coffee, that it is time to get moving.  I consider this fine feathered friend a good omen, a welcomed greeting to the fresh page of a new day.

But I could be very wrong.

The bird is singing out of season.  His trill each day would be more common in April, May or June, but it is only February.  Why has he started practicing so early for spring?  Maybe because we have had no winter here, and barely measurable rain.  Day time temps are in the 80s, and the mercury drops no lower than 50 degrees overnight.  Los Angeles is a desert, saved from arid wasteland by William Mulholland’s aqueduct and his theft of water from the Owens Valley two hundred or more miles to the north.  This year is a dry one, even by L.A. standards.  It is abnormal in a city that relishes its strange and manufactured image.

People laugh and talk about how great it is to live in L.A., even as they watch the snow cascade down upon the rest of the country.  No polar vortex here.  This is the land of make-believe, but the nightmare lingers in the shifting earth, the dwindling water supply, and the bird’s song outside my window each morning, all of which could be signs of a region desperately out of sorts.  Deny all you want, but something is wrong here, and nearly everywhere else on the globe.  Climate change is present with insidious consequences.  I never liked the personification of Mother Nature.  No, she is not angry.  That’s too rational, too simple.

Talk about the wrong book to be reading in this mood!  Some of my concern has been fueled by reading Five Days at Memorial:  Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown, 2013) by journalist Sheri Fink.  This is the story of Memorial Medical Center, New Orleans in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina.  It is a harrowing, brutal, apocalyptic story, and it scares the hell out of me.  No American city, no hospital in this twenty-first century in a first world nation should be knocked out so completely and horrendously.  This is primal stuff, and I wonder if animals might have more instinct and intuition to survive better than the characters in Fink’s reportage.  It is, even with solid writing, an unimaginable tale.  How could this happen?

I’ll tell you.  One, we are not prepared for the complete devastation of such cataclysmic proportions.  Two, there is really no way to be prepared for such a crisis because collapsing infrastructure creates a cascade failure that ripples out beyond the region of the disaster.  There were not enough boats, there were not enough helicopters, and there was limited real estate to land either craft.  The folks at the hospital had not used the helipad for years, so they were not even sure the platform would hold the weight of the aircraft.  Patients could not easily be transported to the helicopters that did land.  Everything was under water.  There was misdirection, miscommunication, mishandling—the whole thing was a miss and a mess, coupled with gunfire, strange encounters with dangerous people, looting of buildings, unreliable law enforcement, and the threat of even greater catastrophe due to a lack of resources and clean water.

Then, of course, as Fink explains in painful and frightening detail, the doctors decided to play God.  I’m not judging here, because things were beyond desperate in the hospital.  In the face of dwindling hope and significant anarchy, doctors and nurses injected several terminal, suffering patients marked “Do Not Resuscitate” with a lethal dose of morphine and muscle relaxers which most likely eased their way out of this life.  A grand jury declined to charge the health care professionals involved in the case.

Whether or not the doctors and nurses were wrong in administering the fatal doses, or if they were in ethical error for helping their suffering patients off this mortal coil, we cannot help but see the overwhelming tragedy and horror in the situation.  The ethical debate is a subject for another essay.  But what really frightened me about this case as I read Fink’s book is that what happened in the fetid corridors of Memorial Medical Center could happen anywhere in the U.S.  All it takes is the right disaster.  The possibilities are endless and the probability of something like that happening almost certain.

Here in Los Angeles, we recently passed the anniversary of the Northridge earthquake.  Fifty-seven people died, more than 5000 were injured, and the price tag topped $20 billion in damages.  Driving around the city, there is little evidence now that anything happened, but I remember those days clearly:  red-tagged buildings; people sleeping in public parks; lack of clean water; looters in destroyed buildings; the National Guard blocking off whole streets of apartments; and the sound of terror, the persistent rumble of the aftershocks.  Often, the shaking grew in amplitude and we wondered if this would be the one that knocked down everything else that remained standing after the main shock on that January day.

We are not prepared.  Sure we have drills, and students duck and cover under their desks.  We have a few bottles of water in a closet somewhere, and some canned goods at the back of the pantry.  But truly, we are not prepared for the magnitude of a disaster that destroys infrastructure and cuts us off from the rest of the world.  We cannot fathom complete devastation, the kind of screaming terror only hinted at in the pictures of Syria on the evening news.  What if, what if, what if?  Not if, when.

The riots in 1992, the earthquake in ’94, the fires in the canyons, all tell us that when things fall apart, we are reduced to our animal natures.  Wars do not happen on the streets of America, until they do.  There are snow plows to take away the towering drifts; there is always a source for clean water; the supermarket will be open twenty-four hours and be fully stocked; fire and police personnel will be there to rescue and protect us.  And then the rumble starts on the edge of the horizon, we must fight for our lives, and no amount of preparation could ever make us ready for what is to come.

The San Andreas fault, the largest of the faults threatening southern California, suffers a major rupture every 150 to 200 years.  The last major rupture was in 1680.  Not if, but when.  Los Angeles may ride through the disaster without complete devastation, mainly because as an urban area, L.A. is spread across so many square miles.  But in a cataclysmic event of such magnitude, everyone in the region will be affected, and a great many of us could perish either in the event itself, or in the aftermath, like at Memorial Medical Center.

In the end, it will probably not be only about bottled water and canned food, or flashlights, batteries, and generators.  No, it will be about humanity.  It will be about recognizing the human being next door, and worrying about his safety as much as our own families.  The disaster can rob us of our livelihood, our resources, even our faith in the goodness of a higher power.  But if the coming disaster robs us of our humanity, it will be every man for himself.  When that happens, as we saw in New Orleans, the water will rise, the violence will spread, and people will die.

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