Nov 23 2014

Talking Spirituality

tkstyFor more than three weeks, we sat with Yesenia’s family on the side of the road at kilometer 53, waiting and wailing. It was not until twenty-four days after the quake that they finally found parts of Yesenia’s brothers’ and family members’ bodies and clothing. Each brother, cousin, and uncle was properly re-buried at the family’s home in San Vicente.

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Nov 5 2014

Bush Fires: A Grave Danger

bfagdSydney’s 1994 bushfire did, in fact, kill a young woman. But the death of strangers does not press on people for long. A killer fire will probably hit Sydney in due course, but not yet. The fires cause millions of dollars worth of damage, but if it was not your house that went up in smoke you hardly notice the personal cost of small increases in insurance premiums and the artful ploys of the state government to raise more revenue.

For most Sydney people I think there is a sensuous thrill in living under a red-black sky for a week or two, experiencing near-darkness at noon, breathing in lightly smoked air and seeing ashes accumulate in the pool. It’s a toss-up who gets the greater thrill when hostesses call guests to cancel Sunday lunch invitations because “it’s getting a bit hairy out our way”.

The telling of post-fire war stories approaches Sydney ceremonial. To stand on the verandah, tracing with extended arm the path of the circle of fire that almost engulfed you, is richly satisfying. If you are lucky enough to live along the myriad inlets and bays of the Hawkesbury estuary, with the Kuringai or Brisbane Waters National Parks at your back, you can keep discussion going into the fourth bottle of chenin blanc about how you sent the women and children to safety in the boat, then joined your neighbours in battling rampaging nature through the night and beyond.

The coming of CNN and the internet means that even those of us who cower in the very bosom of civilisation, kilometres from rampaging nature, get a look in as resistance fighters. Overseas friends, seeing Sydney engulfed, call and ask anxiously how you are. As well as can be expected, you gruffly imply. You would be dangerously out of synch with the zeitgeist by following Galbraith and conceding that you were pretty much enjoying it.

Its bushfires are, in their way, helping to define Sydney. This is a big city that has actual bushfires. Where else sets itself alight at frequent intervals? Los Angeles, of course. But would LA really appreciate its bushfires, as Sydney does, without the additional frisson of movie stars fleeing the flames in their nighties, and celebs watching mega-multimillion dollars of their possessions going up in smoke?

Sydney takes its bushfires straight, and giving the finger to nature at its most wrathful is widely seen as enhancing the New World raffishness Sydneysiders like to detect in themselves.

Also to be considered is the intrinsic attractiveness of near-wilderness in the city. This is not a subject that comes easily to my consideration. My favourite city parks are Central, Hyde and Meiji, groomed, non-representational renditions of nature under the tight control of civilisation at its most polished in New York, London and Tokyo. I also like patios. The patio is an affront to nature. Freud surely enjoyed them.

But I have to concede that, several years ago, I took some enjoyment from a ravine at the end of an urban street where I then lived. It was seven or eight metres deep, pretty narrow and contained a stream, a small waterfall and other chunks of, well, nature, much of it deviantly alien–great thickets of lantana, for instance. My children loved the ravine, and I was not immune to the thrill of slithering down its side into an environment radically different from the mowed-lawn one I had just left.

The difficulty of extending this analogy is that access to most of Sydney’s 38,000 hectares of national park is much more difficult than it was to my neighbourhood ravine. The National Parks and Wildlife Service provides in two volumes a detailed guide to 168 bush walks inside the parks of “the Sydney area” but admits that “most walks are intended for walkers of some experience”.

Dodderers and blunderers–and the merely short-winded–keep out? Probably so. It is impossible to determine the number of people who make use of New South Wales’s national parks because the NPWS counts as users anybody who drives through those parks that contain major arterial roads. The road through the Royal National Park, most of which is within the Sydney metropolis, is virtually a commuter route from the coast to the city–that is, when the park is not on fire. It was almost totally burnt out in both 1994 and 2002.

THE MOTTO of the NPWS twenty or so years ago was “Parks for the people”. Today this would be considered heresy. The present motto is “Our environment, a living thing”. The policy is one of exclusion of people, presumably out of fear that civilians might brutalise this living thing. It is as if the armies of the NPWS have invaded and occupied 5.3 million hectares of New South Wales, driving out hostiles. When nature reserves (“small areas of special scientific interest”) were brought into being in 1999, the NPWS lobbied vehemently, but unsuccessfully, for the removal of the word enjoy from the legislation–this being thought by a majority of the lawmakers to be a good thing for the public to do in respect of nature reserves.

I had my own somewhat unnerving experience of the NPWS’s exclusion policy a couple of years ago when, with time to spare, I decided to drive from Melbourne to Sydney over the mountains. Progress along the good roads of Victoria’s Alpine Way was a pleasure. But when we crossed into New South Wales, whose Snowy Mountains are on a grander scale, and more picturesque, paving to drive on soon ended and deep ruts and protruding boulders took over. Worse, we came often to Y-junctions–not recorded on our small-scale map–that bore no signposts. Which way to go was entirely our call. The sense of being unwelcome to the Kosciusko National Park was strong. We might now be skeletons in a mouldering Ford had it not been for my wife’s country girl instinct for compass direction.

The NPWS’s sense of ownership has made it negligent–out of reluctance to damage “habitats”–about controlled burning-off of eucalypt undergrowth–the traditional and, in fact, virtually only way of guarding against bushfires running out of control. For all the Service’s protestations and scattering around of irrelevant statistics, this is incontrovertible. It burnt off 19,000 hectares in 2000-01, less than half as much as it did in 1994-95, despite having brought thousands of additional hectares under its control. An anecdote will linger: three years in a row, scheduled burn-offs in the north-western corner of Sydney were called off because they threatened the habitats of purportedly rare frogs and the breeding grounds of relatively commonplace cockatoos. In the event, runaway fire wiped out these areas anyway, damage to human habitation being prevented by prodigious firefighting effort.

Malcolm Jones, robustly representing the tiny Outdoor Recreation Party in the New South Wales Upper House and the most consistent opponent of the NPWS’s exclusionism and imperialist grasp for territory, blames premier Bob Carr for the assault by fire on civilisation. “Carr wants to be immortal,” Jones says. “He wants to be remembered as the father of the Green State.”

We of the Premier State need no reminder of this. Carr has established his own Kyoto Protocol and ordered electricity suppliers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 14 per cent on 2000-01 levels by the middle of this decade. My electricity bills now state the quantity of fossil fuels consumed in order to feed my habits, and invite me to consider installing solar-powered devices. No argument is offered as to why I should care or act. I share George W. Bush’s uncertainty about the causes and effects of slight global warming.

Carr seemed uncharacteristically rattled when he returned hurriedly to Sydney from an overseas jaunt and found his state on fire for the second time in less than eight years. He blamed it all on firebugs and said heavier jail sentences were needed for arsonists. Possibly jail alone was too good for them. They should also be made to confront people whose property had been destroyed (and, implicitly, bereaved relatives, if any, of fire victims).

In response to this, the Daily Telegraph committed the grave error for a tabloid of excessive ingenuity. It ran a front page of blacked-out heads of twenty-one accused arsonists under the headline “21 LUCIFERS”. Close scrutiny revealed that twelve of these devils were fifteen or younger, the youngest only nine. Many if not most of the arsonists appeared to have started big fires inadvertently with small fires. The father of one took strong offence to Carr’s threat of doom for his son. The Director of Public Prosecutions came out with an unequivocal declaration that existing penalties for arson were adequate. Carr’s fighting words about arsonists suffered quick public identification as a smokescreen, so to speak.

Carr’s environment minister Bob Debus fared no better when he asserted that greater use of burn-offs would have made no difference to the state’s bushfire assault. As he spoke, fire brigades were frantically burning off in an effort to halt advancing walls of out-of-control flame.

Also lacking sincerity, in my view, was the Carr government’s abrupt decision to place authority for all decisions about hazard reduction (that is, burning off) in the hands of Rural Fire Services Commissioner Phil Koperberg. Effective and noticeable in the field every few years, Koperberg is a public servant who has shown no capacity or desire, between fires, to override Greens, local councils, the NPWS or anybody–certainly not the Premier or any of his closer associates. A more complex man than Koperberg would surely be reflecting on the role of the scapegoat in public life.

As a Sydney dweller, I have no confidence in his ability to protect my city from the fires–nor me personally, should I be so reckless as to move to an outer suburb. Who would support Koperberg if he chose controversially to burn off part of the Lane Cove River Park that was home to a distinctive family of bogong moths? Hardly anybody. The meekness of the public in accepting media and official statements about suburbia encroaching on the bush is astonishing. Surely the bush is encroaching on suburbia. Nature is menacingly intruding on civilisation.

There’s no sense to the NPWS’s administering its holdings in Sydney the same way it does its Snowy Mountains parks. For tiny instance, it is against the law to play ball games in Kosciusko. I suppose you might fall on a valuable toad in diving for a slips catch. But it is effrontery to run the same regulation across the Sydney area, where a million or so people want to play ball games in their parks.

If Carr wishes to pursue his green dream, he would be wise to have the NPWS relinquish its claims on the Sydney area–where there are too many scrutinising eyes for his comfort–and put the national parks (and nature reserves) there in the hands of an entirely separate, relatively Greens-free, metropolitan authority whose brief would be to defend civilisation. Nature would receive a fair go, because it is popular, but not a free ride. If bulldozers were needed for defence against nature’s rapacity–a hundred-metre gap between bush and house is, for example, considered a minimum safety barrier to fire–the bush would have to go, not the house.

Oct 24 2014

Tornado Time: What To Do?

tornadotimeYour safe room should be in a basement. If a basement is unavailable, use a windowless interior room, the closer to the center of the building, the better. If you live in a mobile home, go to a place that will afford better protection. Mobile homes are not built to withstand the force generated by a small tornado.

Once you have established a safe place to take shelter, stock it with some basic, but very necessary, supplies. If these items cannot be stored in the safe room, keep them in a small backpack that can travel with you when an emergency arises. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that you gather the following items:

* a flashlight with extra batteries;

* a battery-operated radio that receives the National Weather Service broadcast;

* a first aid kit;

* food and water to last at least a couple of days (food that does not require heating or water to prepare is best);

* a non-electric can opener;

* medicines you or other members of your family take on a regular basis;

* cash and credit cards; and

* heavy-duty shoes or boots.

When conditions are ripe for tornado development, the weather service will issue a “tornado watch.” A watch does not mean that a tornado has been spotted, but rather that a tornado can develop. If a watch is issued for your area, be aware of certain conditions that may signal tornado development, such as a darkening sky with a greenish tint, or hail. Tornadoes can form rapidly, so if you notice any of these events, seek shelter at once.

“Tornado warnings” are issued when a tornado has been spotted or indicated by radar. When a warning is issued for your area, make your way to your predetermined location immediately. Since a warning means that a tornado has already been sighted, you may not have much time.

You will not always be near your safe room when severe weather strikes, and some places do not provide the necessary level of protection from a tornado. Places that do not provide adequate protection include not only mobile homes but structures with wide roofs, such as shopping malls, auditoriums, cafeterias, and warehouses.

If you happen to work in or are visiting a structure with a wide roof when severe weather strikes, go to a stronger structure, such as a stairway in a parking garage. Should there not be a stronger structure close by, then look for a drainage culvert, or get under a heavy piece of furniture, such as a desk or a workbench.

A car is not a safe place in which to ride out a tornado. With its high winds, a tornado can pick up and toss vehicles. Should you find yourself in a car or another vehicle when a tornado strikes, seek shelter in a building or a strong structure. As a last resort, lie in a ditch away from vehicles, making sure to cover your head and neck with your arms.

Wait until the tornado has passed to help injured or trapped persons. If people are severely injured, move them only if they are in immediate danger, to avoid causing further injury.

Use your telephone only for emergency calls. Telephone lines and cell phone towers may be down, causing the remaining circuits to become jammed. Lots of people call after an emergency. The fewer people tying up the circuits the better.

If the structure you are in is damaged, then get out. Be careful not to touch any electrical wires: They may still have currents running through them. Check to make sure the gas line coming into the house is connected and not leaking. If you smell gas, alert other people and get away. If possible, and if you know how, turn off the gas at the main valve.

Remember, it may take some time for emergency workers to reach you. While your area may not look too damaged, downed trees and power lines may be blocking the roads leading to you.

Oct 8 2014

A Flood Essay

afeyAs the water continued to spread, we hefted furniture up on stacks of bricks our freezer atop coolers. We carried dripping boxes of Christmas decorations and childhood treasures to drier areas of the basement. Within three. and a half hours, the flood water, some of which was sewage backup, would rise to a height of more than a metre.

When our kids woke, I left Todd to the moving and hoisting and escaped with the kids to McDonald’s for breakfast. The sun was coming up now and I could see that the flood was everywhere. Stalled cars, some up to their axles in water, littered the roadway. After breakfast, I drove to the day care before heading home again. Leaving my children in the raging wind and rain – and in the too recent aftermath of Sept. 11 – was intensely unsettling. But how could I keep them at home?

Back in the basement, Todd continued. “It’s coming in everywhere, every opening, every drain,” he said. We heard frequent gurglings and then splashes as bottles and boxes and jars first floated, then capsized and sank. We watched in despair as the spilled contents of our freezer bobbed around the oil furnace. I helped Todd tie our floating freezer to a bracket on the wall to prevent it from ramming the furnace and causing even more damage.

The phone lines were down. At 10:30 a.m., the power failed. I was standing in water high enough to flow over the top of my knee-high rubber boots. I waded across what used to be our basement and tried to remove the most valuable items from the sea of possessions. Feeling like a traitor, I watched my children’s toys float past while I struggled with books, computer diskettes and office supplies.

When the water crested at the hem of my shorts, I gave up. I retreated upstairs and used my cellphone to call my mother, two provinces away. For the first time, I cried. I cried for all the irreplaceable items we’d lost and because I was scared. But mostly, I cried because I felt overwhelmed. (I didn’t even know at that point that we had no insurance coverage. “Flooding,” the company man would tell me later that afternoon, “is not a standard insurable risk.”)

At about 6 p.m., the water stopped rising. Our basement was a swamp and our home – the one in which we’d hosted so many fine dinner parties and renovated so painstakingly over the past two years – smelled like a sewer. What were we supposed to do next?

It took three days and two nights before we could actually start measuring our losses. The children were safe at my mother-in-law’s house and we tried to move everything from the basement upstairs and then, when the sun reappeared, we toted the sopping boxes outside to dry in the sunshine.

That day, as I stood in the backyard, sifting through photo albums and family heirlooms, the depth of my sadness dismayed me. I cried at the shots of my best friend who died of cancer when we were 13 and at me wearing blue eyeshadow as McDonald’s “crew person of the month.” The dolls I had saved for my children could never be properly cleaned and decontaminated. I drew the line, though, at the travel diaries from our carefree backpacking adventures. I refused to throw those out. I hung them on the line beside the sour-smelling hockey equipment that was too expensive to discard hut hadn’t yet been washed. Todd and I consoled each other. “We’re all alive and safe,” we said. And “this is only stuff”

So, why, two days after the water receded, when I opened my childhood tickle trunk and found all 52 of my prized-but-forgotten Nancy Drew books soaked and beginning to smell, did I burst into tears? Even as I opened the covers to reveal an eight-year-old’s signature, I tried to comfort myself, thinking, “I don’t even have daughters. Ben and Andrew wouldn’t want to read these anyway,” but it didn’t help. At the time, despite the game-faced words, “it could have been worse,” I felt cheated, angry and sad.

So soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a little bit of flood water should only have served as a reminder of how good we’ve really got it, right? But sometimes stuff means more than just material wealth. Sometimes that stuff is the physical incarnation of our spiritual wealth, our memories, our past. And the keepsakes that you’ve cherished and preserved are intended not only to commemorate your past, but to illuminate your future, when you or your children or your grandchildren can hold them and be transported back to another time. Having these things violated feels not only like an affront to your memories, but like a blow to your future too.

As my husband said, “You really don’t know what you’ve got until you see it float.”

Eventually, the events of Sept. 19 would find a more comfortable resting place in my memory, one that would put our losses into some perspective. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this began during the flooding when a neighbour asked to borrow my cellphone. His wife needed to call to find out if her doctor’s appointment had been cancelled.

Then there was a woman who lived across the street and a few doors down. While the rain poured and water collected in our basements, most neighbours scurried about their houses and yards feverishly; she watched helplessly from behind her closed door. Confined to a wheelchair, this single mother of a five-year-old daughter sat patiently and frightened as her finished basement was submerged. I only learned about her a few days later, but when I did, I couldn’t help but feel humbled by her courage and grace. “I know that whatever happened was for a reason,” she told me.

The water wasn’t our only obstacle. Until an information package from the provincial government arrived on our doorsteps a week later, we had no information on proper cleanup and nobody told us that almost everything the flood water touched was contaminated and would have to be thrown out. Nobody told us that without proper disinfection, our homes would breed toxic moulds that cause a litany of air-quality and health problems. We knew the world’s gaze was locked on the rubble of the twin towers, but surely to God, our local authorities would pay attention. Yet, the civic officials and politicians at all levels seemed stuck in an unfathomable state of denial.

Tired of waiting for assistance, tired of hearing, “Someone should organize a meeting,” I took it on. I gathered a small committee of residents interested in putting pressure on the government. We booked St. Mark’s Anglican Church hall and invited any flood victims who had no insurance. The night of the meeting — nine days after the flood — we set out 100 chairs. Nearly 500 people showed up.

Notably absent were representatives from the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) — the department supposedly co-ordinating the relief effort with the federal government. Despite my pleas that they attend our meeting to provide critical information, the EMO stayed away. Prime Minister Jean Chretien did not comment on the situation when he attended a $500-a-plate Liberal party fund-raiser in St. John’s. Industry Minister Brian Tobin – who had very recently been Newfoundland’s pre-mier – ignored our invitation. Only the mayor, Andy Wells, tried to answer questions, but all he could offer was reassurance and a promise that the municipality would – gratis – cart away our drywall, carpets and millions of dollars’ worth of personal belongings.

Where, we wondered, was the government assistance? Where were the aid agencies that so promptly and commendably cared for the thousands of American airline passengers stranded in St. John’s only a week earlier?

We were going to have to do it ourselves. Thus began my role as unofficial flood lobbyist. What followed was a barrage of phone calls, e-mails and faxes to all levels of government. I told our story to anyone who would listen, sending out news releases and doing media interviews. More than anything else, though, I fielded calls from affected residents. Some were offering to help with the campaign for flood relief. Most just needed a sympathetic ear. We drew strength from sharing our stories.

I came to learn that our family was among the more fortunate. Not only was our house repairable, six weeks after the flood, our insurance company agreed to cover $10,000 of our $36,ooo loss. Many of our neighbours still haven’t collected a cent.

Two months after the flood, we got a call from the EMO. The federal government was coming through with the promised funding, but the program was bureaucratic, slow and sorely inadequate. Only the essentials were paid for and receipts had to be provided up front. You had to spend the money to get anything back. If you couldn’t, you’d have to settle for 70 per cent of the claim. Families with access to a large line of credit could live with the restrictions. Most got the 70 per cent.

Six months after the flood, our trauma has dwindled to the inconvenience of plaster dust, hardware-store bills and an overcrowded upper floor. Even as my husband and I nattered at each other, betraying the stress we still felt, we always knew our family would be fine. Our house would be restored and we’d move on. We would even mature a bit in the process. I came to realize that my self-perception as a harried mother of two young children is no excuse for not taking responsibility within my community. I will always be a harried something-or-other, but I will still feel a sense of responsibility toward the place where I live and the people who share it with me.

Perhaps more surprising, I’ve faced the fact that my material possessions are important to me. I’m not embarrassed to say that I value the things I’ve worked to own. This doesn’t mean I’m materialistic. Indeed, since the events of Sept. 19, I’ve never been more aware of my good fortune. I simply think that now, I’m just honest about it and I’ll never again try to comfort someone who’s experienced a loss with “Don’t worry, it’s only stuff.”