Thursday, September 01, 2005

In the Path of a Monster

This column has been posted early so that I might provide yet another link to a favorite aid organization involved in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Please see this post in my daily blog for further details.

I’m having some difficulty understanding why some people chose to stay in their houses along the gulf coast, and in the nearby inland communities, as hurricane Katrina approached this week.

Fare be it from me to point fingers at people who like to put themselves in danger for the sake of watching a storm roll through. As my neighbors and my family will confirm, I do not seek shelter from severe thunderstorms until the hailstones begin to drop on me. I love to see lightning , rain, wind. Funnel clouds fascinate me so that I have been known to stand in my back yard gaping at the skies. Tornadoes are, to my mind, the Finger of God, flicking little objects like trees and houses off the playing board of our prairies. And, I fully understand that many people, while they don’t much care for bad weather, have no means of getting themselves out of the way of a really big storm. 

But I can’t understand how somebody would deliberately choose to remain -- against mandatory evacuation orders -- in the path of a hurricane. If you’re staying there on purpose, you’re not simply a smarty-pants scofflaw or a fierce libertarian. You’re an idiot. That’s not the Finger of God out there, skipping and dancing across the water. That’s His entire wet arm, readying to wipe away cities. And science has given you plenty of warning that the arm which is sweeping in your direction packs a lot of muscle.

I listened to interviews on tv news programs, with people who decided to “ride it out”, and they perplexed the heck out of me. The most common reason for staying in the path of the oncoming monster was, “Everything I own is here.” Well, I suppose that’s accurate. But everything of value that you own is also portable. It’s called “yourself”. All else is, to quote George Carlin, “stuff”, and the place to put it. You can live without it. You already did so before you accumulated it. It’s not worth risking your own precious life to stay near it. 

More, though, it’s certainly not worth risking somebody else’s life to protect it. Leave your family out of it. They, too, are more precious than a sixty-inch plasma screen tv and a wide-slot toaster. Send them to higher ground. Send them to Sacramento, if you must. But don’t include them in your harebrained scheme to face down the wrath of Poseidon.

And, I’ll admit, if you want to risk your own skin in the face of an oncoming disaster, you have the right to do so. But once you decide to do this stupid thing, you have relinquished all right to ask for somebody to rescue you when things get scary. The rescue crews will be too busy saving (a) themselves, and (b) the folks who had no choice but to stay. You should be last on the “save” list, after goldfish and lawn furniture.

Some of those who chose to stay along the Gulf Coast did so because they wanted to “experience a once-in-a-lifetime event like this”. Fine. In a civilized society, hazards are deliberately made rare. So that we can have better, healthier ways of living, we create structures which protect us from as many dangers as humanly possible. This leads to a rather dull existence. That’s why so many people pay through the nose for season passes to amusement parks advertising the fastest, scariest roller coasters. It’s all a “safe thrill”.

But deliberate risk-taking is not a rational behavior to begin with, and demanding that innocent people throw themselves to the elements to save you from your stupidity is even less rational. When you choose to turn your back on that safe-ish civilization, when you challenge the uncivilized faces of the world, simply for the sake of a thrill or for the sake of replaceable wealth, we can not be held accountable for what happens if you fall. This doesn’t apply solely to hurricanes, either. People who climb mountains often end up calling for helicopter rescue, and several such rescue parties have died trying to help. Boaters with no training take their craft into whitewaters, and, when they capsize, too often take their Coast Guard would-be rescuers to a watery grave. In my view, if you deliberately put yourself in the path of danger, you alone should have to live -- however briefly -- with the consequences. We can not be expected to come running across the thin ice upon which you chose to skate. And we can not be expected to feel a pang over your untimely demise.

We have enough to do, saving those who did their best to save themselves, and mourning those whose lives were lost through no fault of their own.

For a list of organizations through which you might help the relief effort, please visit this post in my daily blog and click on any of the links I've posted in the last paragraph (opposite the picture of the kitten).

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