Tuesday morning: Here in San Diego, life continues to be surreal. We’re hunkered down in my niece’s tiny one bedroom apartment as parts of the county continue to burn. We are the lucky ones. We sit in comfort, eating chocolate, eyes glued to the TV, each with our own laptop, communicating to people on the other side of town. Our house is still intact, and we have a place to stay out of the danger zone. On the TV, we see homes burning. We don’t really want to watch this destruction, but on the bottom of the screen they are scrolling the names of the neighborhoods that people are allowed to return to, and we hope to see ours listed. It isn’t, although they are allowing people in a couple of miles away. We discuss whether or not we should head back to our home anyway.
My husband wants to go. I don’t, I figure there is a reason they have not released our neighborhood. We live in Carmel Valley, and with the Santa Ana winds our little valley can become a wind tunnel channeling the fire right to the ocean, which is why they evacuated us in the first place. Besides, when I was growing up in Ohio I lived through too many tornados to feel the danger is over. No matter what the prognosis, mankind still has no control over wind patterns, as far as I know.
Outside my niece’s apartment the sky is orange and ashes are falling and it smells like a forest on fire. Not surprising. We have lots of free time to go walking, but it’s not a good idea to breathe in air that you can see. Meanwhile on the tube, they announce that schools will be closed all week in all school districts in the county. Rebecca, my daughter who is a high school sophomore, is thrilled. She is less thrilled when she finds out that the concert we have tickets to go to tomorrow night at the House of Blues is also cancelled. We were supposed to see Boys Like Girls, All Time Low and The Audition. This is the third time Rebecca attempts to see The Audition with no success, at this point she thinks this fire is part of a conspiracy. My 18 year old son with autism is happy enough, he’s got his favorite book and his ribbon. When asked how he is doing he spells out on his letter board “GREAT I’M WITH FAMILY. I’M HAPPY WE ARE HERE.”
I am still worried about friends I have not been able to reach in some areas I am seeing highlighted bright red fire zones on the TV. A conference on self-employment for developmental disabilities that my son and I were supposed to speak at in a suburb of San Diego on Thursday has been cancelled. Meanwhile I am getting emails from people in other parts of the world asking for answers on projects I am working on and expecting me to meet certain writing deadlines. This makes me realize how although we San Diegans may feel like our lives are on hold, and we are consumed with thoughts about essentials such as food and shelter, to the rest of the world, it is life as usual and the fires are just another item on the evening news. And really, when you think about the fact that 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes in Darfur, Sudan and that millions of others face murder, rape, torture, malnutrition, and disease over there, my little situation here doesn’t seem so bad.
Tuesday afternoon: Back on the tube, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on screen along with both Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA Administrator David Paulison. President Bush has sent them to get a first-hand view of the disaster. To be honest, I don’t feel comforted by their presence. Those of us watching can only hope the federal government has learned something since Hurricane Katrina. Arnold tells us how great the San Diego locals are being to their neighbors, pulling together to help each other and how the evacuation centers are overwhelmed with volunteers and needed supplies. It is true that San Diegans are a very neighborly population, one of the reasons I like it here. In my 11 years of living here with a severely autistic child with weird behaviors, I have seen only kindness from strangers when we are out in public. Not so in other places.
Gov. Schwarzenegger tells us he has asked President Bush to declare a federal emergency for seven CA counties to speed disaster-relief efforts. This is good news. He tells us President Bush is coming on Thursday. I’m not quite sure I understand why. Perhaps he is going to open up some of the extra bedrooms in the White House to those who have been forced to evacuate and have lost their homes, and he is going to interview some appropriate locals to be prospective roommates. When Gov. Schwarzenegger and company are done speaking, the local newscaster jokes that Arnold must have bought a home here, he and President Bush seem so involved and touched with what is going on down here. I have a feeling it is really because San Diego County is a Republican stronghold. Call me cynical. I might add that much of the homes we see burning are in neighborhoods a bit different from the parishes devastated in New Orleans and most of them are owned by whites. I am not saying that this makes their devastation any easier – losing your home sucks no matter whether it is a shack or a mansion and irregardless of the color of your skin – but I don’t get the feeling that Bush and company are down with the brown.
Meanwhile we have to leave the house for a provision run to the 99 cent store down the street. We are running out of toilet paper. Some things you just can’t do without unless it is a matter of life or death, or you are unlucky enough to be homeless in Sudan. Since we have ventured beyond the front door, we decide to brave the haze and head for the local pier. The sun looks bright red and very eerie through the smoke and our sinuses are starting to act up. Looking down into the ocean off the pier, we see the surfers are out in full force. Surfers are a dedicated bunch and it feels great to see a bit of every day normalcy after all the images of doom and gloom on the TV and internet. It is nice to see so much water after feeling so much dryness.
Tuesday evening: When we get back to my niece’s apartment, I check my email. I’m still trying to find out what happened to a few local friends I can’t seem to reach. One of them has emailed me and she is safe with friends in Hillcrest, another San Diego neighborhood closer to the center of town. I read some emails from friends and family around the world who have come to realize that this is not just the usual California brushfire. Like Arnold, I am overwhelmed by the kindness. In particular, one seminar organizer who sends me around the country to speak on autism has offered to put my family up at a hotel, and when told none are available in San Diego, finds and reserves one in Orange County, about an hour and fifteen minutes away from here. It feels amazingly good to feel so much support, yet we are hesitant to leave in case the winds change and head for our neighbors and home. Right now, we are still the lucky ones. And in reality, we would have to cross other evacuation zones and fires and we would rather deal with the devastation in our own town than in someone else’s. But we are touched and grateful for the offered gift of privacy and a swimming pool.
People in the autism community are well aware of how a disaster such as this can create particular havoc for a child with autism because most of them cannot tolerate a change in their routine or a change in their environment. We are lucky because as long as Jeremy is with us and has his book or his favorite piece of ribbon, he is OK. No meltdowns here. In other emails I see that some autism organizations in the Southern California area are already looking to see what they can do to mobilize help for those whose kids with autism are not as easy going as Jeremy. Since the schools and day programs are closed and their routine has been disrupted, many of these kid are wigging out. Add to that the fact that many of them are now living in a relatives’s or a friend’s living room and they don’t have their stuff around them, and you can understand how painful this is for them and their families. Another concern is for those who are on special diets and can’t get access to the kinds of foods their systems can tolerate.
We sit back and watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the perfect show to relax to. Visions of the Fab 5 redoing our house when we can move back in or if we need to rebuild are dancing in my head. I love these guys. One of them has a parent in Rancho Santa Fe, where the fires have headed instead of our neighborhood. I hope she is OK and her house is still standing.
My brother the cameraman calls, he has just landed at LAX. He is heading out with his camera and his soundman to shoot some footage in San Bernardino before coming down to San Diego. I tell him to be careful, not to get too close to anything burning. But that’s why he’s here, Good Morning America viewers want to see and feel up close what we are going through. I hope I will get the chance to see him while he is out here.
Wednesday early morning: It’s 5:30 here in San Diego, I wake up and it still smells like everything is burning, even worse than yesterday. My eyes are stinging, my sinuses are protesting. Soot is everywhere and I’m still inside the house. That hotel room in Orange County is looking pretty tempting right now. News on the internet tells me wireless service has been provided to those evacuated to Qualcomm Stadium and laptops have been donated to evacuees there. This is definitely not a Hurricane Katrina -style stadium evacuation going on here. Final numbers for yesterday’s devastation are at 500,000 people evacuated from their homes and 1300 houses burned to the ground. My neighborhood is still not listed as a place we are allowed to go back to, but I’m hoping there will be another update later today. Still, I feel lucky. My family is here, we are all alive and safe, we have family to stay with and our house is still up. Life is good. What more could I possibly want?
This post first appeared on the HuffingtonPost.com, October 23, 2007