Our Natural Disaster: A Beautiful Side Effect

Jenni Aguilar, California

Just as our community (Santa Barbara, CA-area of SoCal) was coming back from the havoc wreaked by the largest fire in California history, just as we thought the worst had come and gone…rain.

 A lot of rain. A ‘200-year rain event’, which means inches of rain in minutes. The rain, which was nowhere to be found while the flames ripped through our hills (thanks Mother Nature!), made a short but devastating appearance on January 9th. We have no words for the horror and the loss (23 lives, more injured, hundreds of homes lost, after thousands of homes were lost in the fire and an untold economic toll) that our community and its members are navigating and mourning, so we won’t make an attempt. However, there are beautiful lessons within the loss and we can speak to those.

When mudslides from the big rain storm took out the power lines much of our area lost access to everything. Cable, internet and cellphone services were down for up to 5 days in some areas, much longer in others. No watching the news on TV, no receiving updates online, no calling or texting…nothing. Some of us were trapped in our homes for days due to road damage, flooding and closures (#Rio). Some of us could get into town, where almost every local business was without these privileges as well (#Jenni).

Rio’s Story

Two days after the disaster, I went on a walk along the street at the top of the hill I live on. The one-way road makes a loop about a mile long and I’ve walked and run this loop for many years passing the same houses, the same flower gardens, avoiding the same potholes, cursing the same upwards slope. In all the years I’ve spent essentially running in circles, I’ve never seen SO. MANY. PEOPLE. Couples and kids and grandparents peppered the street. They were holding hands, walking their dogs, and talking to each other. It was so surprising that my first thought was that an event was happening somewhere on the hill that they were all going to. They all had to know each other or have planned this. There’s no way all of these people, neighbors I’ve never even seen before, just happen to be outside at the same time.

And then it hit me- they don’t have access to anything. They can’t watch their shows. They can’t work from home. Technology had been taken away all at once, and suddenly talking to each other and going for a walk outside was the only thing to do. It was beautiful to see, and troubling to realize how deeply our behavior is being shaped by these very new-to-us technologies.

The next day I sat and talked with a family member for three hours while the sun went down. What began as a quick hello unfolded into one of the most rewarding conversations we’ve ever had together. Without the ability to watch, send, text, post, scroll, click, etc. we were simply…there. We had time and space to ask each other questions and listen deeply. There was nothing to get back to. There wasn’t anything we could have been doing that we weren’t. All we could do, was be. The absence of technology removed the clutter and noise that surrounds us constantly and what we had left was each other’s company.

Our relationships with people are arguably the most important parts of our lives and greatest sources of happiness. While technology allows more and more efficient communication, how is it affecting the quality? How many moments and conversations and opportunities to connect to the people in our lives have we missed because some sort of screen was nearby? What is this constant distraction from life, the thing happening right now, stealing from us really? After 5 days without it, I had not the one but three amazingly unpredictable moments in conversation with three people I love. I saw the instant shift in quality of communication as a result of no ‘access’. There is  no denying the lack of internet and electronic communication radically shifted our community behavior – back to something more primal. Our modern lives of social media and emails and computers and Netflix are taking away from what makes life worth writing about, dreaming about, playing the piano for, laughing until you cry for. We are losing something irreplaceable and precious- our time together. Time we will never get back, moments we can never re-live. So how are we spending our time? Who is sitting near you? How are they? What’s happening in their lives right now? Put down the phone. Ask them. Make eye contact.

Jenni’s Story

Like Rio, we lost everything but our gas and electricity (which was really a huge turn of luck!). I live in town, so I could bike and drive around to the coffee shop, store etc. We were blocked off from both the North and South. The main highway in our area is the 101 and is was completely blocked by the Montecito mudslide to the North (and that took 2 weeks to re-open) and there was minor damage to the South so we couldn’t get to Ventura, CA either.

Here are a couple of practical items to know about catastrophes:

YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL

There are zero circumstances where nature gives a f*%k about you. In the mudslide an 18 month-old baby was swept from his home a half-mile, buried in mud and trapped. A fireman and neighbor happened to hear him cry, he happened to have a piece of wood above his head keeping his airway open and he miraculously survived. So did his Dad. The rest of the family perished. Gone.

Evacuation orders are no joke. If you can protect yourself, from tornadoes, floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and more, do it. But know that nature is large and in charge, you are puny and helpless in the face of this kind of raw power. It’s humbling and a reminder to keep your wits and skills sharpened.

YOU DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH FOOD & WATER

I have a large family and I used to work at a grocery store.

The minute I heard about the storm warning and evacuations (some voluntary, some mandatory) I went to the store (the night of the storm) and bought EVERYTHING. Why? If you live in the U.S. everything you eat, barring a tiny percentage, got to you on a truck. No highway = no trucks = no food = no good. I was not the only person there. Hours before the storm hit, the main grocery in town (it’s a very small town) was already out of 1) water, 2) meat and 3) dairy. Our family keeps an emergency store of items, but this shopping trip was another buffer against mayhem.

YOU ARE NOT READY

I was prepared, had my emergency supplies, was ready to evacuate, was ready to be without power and services for a long time. And I still wasn’t ready. After the first day without news, without the ability to leave (essentially trapped) staring at our beach where all the deitrius showed up (a mile-long, 4-foot deep pile of burned trees, trash, pieces and parts of someone’s home), just watching the ocean turn black, I was truly freaked out. I wanted information. I wanted to feel safe and I did not. I wanted to be able to escape and I couldn’t. My primal brain was in full swing – stealing energy from my forebrain. I couldn’t ‘think’. Not the way I do most of the time. My usual stuff – book, blog, podcast – seemed trivial and silly and useless. All our family could work on was making sure we had our shit wired. As soon as the 101 South opened – BOOM! I was in Ventura. Just because I could. Physical movement was necessary. The old part of me, the DNA that remembers past horrific catastrophes, was so satisfied to be able to escape.
Practicalities aside, and on a deeper level I found out this: I understand my Homo sapien self better. I totally trust my evolutionary self to take care of me in an emergency. During the fire, I met a woman at the coffee house during the fire. She had (literally) just fled her home as flames moved into her neighborhood. She looked a bit shell shocked so I asked her if she was OK. And she said, “I’m so stupid. I saw the flames, they weren’t that close, but just seeing them, I panicked and I fled.” I asked her why that was stupid? She said, “I wore my flip flops, I didn’t put on my real shoes.” And then we sat there laughing and crying. I reassured her that her brain/body knew what it was doing, shoes be damned. I thought it was cool that she responded to her appropriate fear and grabbed her dog, laptop, purse, car and was OUT.

Rio’s story above and mine are so similar. During the lack of services, people were out and about in our town, looking for connection, safety, reassurance, company and information. I have not seen anything so social – #homosocialis – since the 1970’s. I lived in a Seattle neighborhood as a kid and almost every night there was a huge game of Kick-the-Can. Parents were outside chatting, 20 kids were playing this intensive game, people were relaxing, sharing news and gossip, drinking wine, eating together. Our few days with no phones and internet looked just like that. And it was f#*king awesome! Rio is correct, we are missing out on something so simply human, so simply at our core. Some of us more than others. And Rio and I are not Luddites. I’m writing this on Mac right now. But the addictive design (and I think there is enough confirmation of this to say it with confidence, it’s a design, not a mistake) has forced us into a trade for our time, and the trade isn’t a good one. The generations coming up are not – from all science conducted so far – benefitting from 24/7 access to the internet and social media view smartphones. In fact, I hate to call them that. It’s only ‘smart’ if you use it in a smart manner.

In addition to being prepared for whatever natural disasters are ‘natural’ for your region, we think these moments provide an opportunity to see things in a new light. From understanding the biological response to stress to seeing, plainly, that we need less time on screens and more face-to-face time with each other – learning and adapting are always possible and always positive. Even in the face of great loss.

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