“What would YOU bring during an evacuation?”—an answer from Earthquake / Fire Country


One of my former roommates had her house smashed by Sandy. 

Other roommates were without power for a week while I sat in toasty San Diego, staring at frightening images on TV. 

All of my old friends back east were impacted greatly by that awful storm, prompting my dear friend Marcia to post on FB an article from the NY Times.  This article asked an insightful question of its readers:  What would YOU bring if you were standing in two feet of water in your own home and wanted to save something before evacuating?

I call this question “insightful” because it is disturbing; its answer may very well imprint itself onto a person’s psyche—at least it did in my case.  Because although I don’t know what it’s like to stand in two feet of water or to see my home smashed to bits, I do know what it’s like to feel fear and to evacuate in the dead of night.  I know what it’s like to ask myself what to bring—and to be startled at the response.

On October 17, 1989 I was in San Francisco when a 7.1 earthquake hit.  Ironically I’d actually been laying stomach-down on a grassy field in Golden Gate Park, with my hands on the earth, when I felt a deep rumble.  The rumble turned into a serpent undulating under the grass; then trees wagging; then sirens and car crashes and broken bridges and crowds rioting stores for emergency supplies and, of course, no power for a while (though no freezing weather either).   For that earthquake, though, I was not home.  I didn’t evacuate.  I returned home to a smashed TV and hundreds of aftershocks that my family and me scurrying to doorways and under tables for the next several months.  The bad dreams continued for a year.  But no evacuation: no possessions that needed to be weighed and judged as worthy enough to escape with.

In the wildfires of 2007 I came just a tiny bit closer to what this year’s flood victims may have felt like.  In our case, who was the perpetrator of widespread evacuations?  Not Sandy, of course.  Instead we had “Santa Ana winds,” which Raymond Chandler in his book RED WIND called: “those hot dry [winds] that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” 

To put it more factually, according to Associated Press, the 2007 Santa Ana winds resulted in San Diego suffering through five fires converging on approximately 655 homes, 168 businesses, and 374 square miles.

Not as colossal and horrific as Sandy, if one can compare calamities (which one never can; even one loss is too many for that family!)  My point is, at 2:00 in the morning one of the treacherous fingers of this dragon-fire began unfurling down Mount Miguel toward my street.  At 2:00 in the morning the much-dreaded call came to evacuate.  Meanwhile, the air smelled like the inside of Hell.  Ashes floating down on the heads of neighbors packing up their cars added to my little boy’s hysteria—and mine.   Our dog was a quivering mess.  Lights were ablaze up and down the street as folks stood in bathrobes staring at the sky and talking.  Apocalypse under Palm Trees.  “Time to go,” I told Cody.  “You just sit here with your blanket while I grab a few things.”

The moment.  What will I bring?

Number one thought: BUSTED for not packing sooner! 

Number two thought: We may never see this house again. 

And Number three: What can’t I live without?

The answer, as deeply personal as the one in the NY Times article posted by my college roommate on Long Island:  People and Pets, of course (What the heck will I do with a tortoise in the shelter at Qualcomm Stadium?  And I’ll never catch the cats.  What about Cody’s poor goldfish!  Will they die in a plastic baggie?). 

But after the People and Pets?  And after the People and Pets Accoutrements of pillow, blanket, stuffed animal, doggie bed, purse, jackets, and all the bottled water and snack food that could be found in the kitchen?

I still remember this one image: opening my closet door and staring at my much-coveted wardrobe.  All those black dresses and yummy blouses and ShoesShoesShoes.  And I remember thinking, “Yuk.  Who cares?”

Another ridiculous clotheshorse bites the dust, I thought, as I went for what did matter—memories and art.  People who have gone.  Photos of childhood, of babyhood, of grandparents and old friends.  I grabbed diaries and letters that I never read anymore but cherish as personal history.  I grabbed a few favorite books and some paintings, both great and childish.  And yes, I grabbed my fiction manuscripts, a combination of over twenty years of unpaid craft.

I barely glanced at our horde of technology, to tell the truth.  Laptop came with, since it belonged to my employer.  And a portable radio.  But that’s it.

We turned out to be very lucky; the evacuation was short-lived; our home saved by heroic firefighters.  And when we returned to that home, I felt changed.  Didn’t care about clothes shopping for a long, long time.  Didn’t take anything for granted for a long, long time: simple things such as clean air to breath, a home to live in, a child who felt safe.

Which brings me to tomorrow: Thanksgiving. 

I am thankful for the love and life of everyone who has been in my life, past and present.  I’m thankful that my friends in the east are okay, though badly shaken.  I’m thankful to have my mother with us though this year we lost my father.  I am thankful that I know what matters, what I would take in an evacuation.

I need to relearn that Who-Cares-About-The-Clothes lesson, though.  Memory can be fickle when you’re a clotheshorse…

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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