Friday, August 24, 2018

The Remains of the Day

We were making salads for dinner. Rich left the kitchen to walk outside to see what the helicopters were doing. They'd been in our skies for 4 days, but their noise was suddenly louder.

As he was standing there watching the activity, the power went out. I opened the patio door to call out to him and let him know. He motioned for me to come stand outside with him. We both looked at where the helicopter was doing water dumps and then looked at each other.

He said, "That's really close."

I said, "Let's get out of here."

The next 3 or 4 minutes were a flurry of manually opening the garage doors, throwing things we'd already packed in the backs of our cars, throwing other things we hadn't packed into the cars and finally locking up the house as quickly as possible. The police drove down the street, sirens were on and they yelled out the windows, "Leave NOW."

We later learned this is called a "Level 3 Evacuation." How quickly you forget a salad.

About 12 hours later, we heard for sure that our home had miraculously survived the Carr Fire. It would be 8 days before we could return to our home. It sustained damage, but we could live in it.

This was no ordinary fire. According to Cal Fire personnel, their intent went from fighting a fire, to rescuing people while trying to get themselves out alive.

Disaster zones are an intriguing study in the human response to devastation.

There is lots of trauma. The hardest trauma is the loss of life. One can say it's miraculous that a whole section of your town managed to evacuate with only 3 people dying. But if your loved ones are among the 3, it's no consolation.

The loss of one's domain is devastating even if you are not particularly attached to material things. You are instantly "homeless." Some people have the ability to go back in and see the damage immediately. Others are so distraught they cannot bring themselves to go look. I'm not sure you can predict which one of those people you would be.

The few hours following the evacuation, I wasn't particularly worried about "my stuff." I guess I thought I wouldn't be that attached to it. Once we moved back in 8 days later, I opened cabinets and closets and saw things I know I would have greatly missed. I would have grieved the loss of many sentimental and historical items in my home that were not particularly on my mind the day we left.

Some people want to begin the rebuilding process immediately and dive into the paperwork. Others need time to process the event as they experience an emotional paralysis. Some were already facing transition and now the future decision has been pushed ahead on their timeline. The disaster made the decision for them. They won't rebuild.

For the most part, these tragedies rally neighborhoods and communities together. They restore our faith in the goodness of mankind when we see overwhelming compassion and generosity. Neighbors become fierce supporters and protectors of people they only knew casually. Restaurant owners give free meals to evacuees and people who lost everything. Contractors offer to rebuild at cost for any first responders who lost their homes while fighting the fire and keeping others safe. Families show up everywhere with food and the necessary supplies for daily living for those who are left with absolutely nothing.

With trauma there is a wide range of emotion in a constant state of change. Some people are resilient at first and then crash later. A fencing contractor told us he was out on a property 24 hours after the fire when gas lines were unsafe and ashes were still smoldering, to install a temporary fence. The homeowner was demanding and still isn't satisfied about anything despite the contractor's willingness to go into a dangerous situation. The homeowner is just frustrated and mad.

And there's a man I heard about who was so ecstatic that his home "made it," but once he moved back in, became very grumpy about the damage and everything else.

It's easy to judge these people and say "at least you have each other" or "at least your insurance will help you rebuild." But the deep questions remain. "Why did one house survive and not another?" "What did God have to do with any of this?" These questions are unanswerable and it's a mistake to utter things we have no knowledge of.
The trauma is there and it's there for quite awhile. Things can trigger you years later like the sound of a helicopter or seeing something in a store that you lost in the disaster. I had friends who went through Hurricane Andrew in Florida. The sound of the wind, especially at night, and the sound of shattering glass are triggers for them.

"Grace" is the imperative word here. People who've experienced disaster benefit most from hugs and your caring presence rather than words. Listening and avoiding the urge to give an answer or help them feel better or "get over it" in some way will only alienate you and frustrate them.

I didn't lose my home, but I'm still on a constantly changing journey of emotions. They say disaster assistance and compassion begin to disappear after several weeks and then rapidly diminish in the months following. But trauma doesn't leave at the same rate. In fact it often increases in intensity later. The real test of "community" is being able to remain with people on their journey of starting over for as long as that takes.

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