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In times of disaster: A reflection

This June, wildfires raged over Colorado. This photo is from the Denver Post, denverpost.com.

I usually use this space to focus on issues of sex, sexuality, safety, and feminist politics. These are usually the most pressing things occupying my mind on any given day. This week, however, is a bit different.

You see, I was spending time in Hartford, Connecticut with a wonderful group of women, all of us gathered to celebrate Beth’s bridal shower, when my partner called. “I don’t want you to worry,” he began, “but there’s a wildfire at Garden of the Gods and I’m packing up to evacuate. What do you want me to grab?” He began listing his current list: our cat, important paperwork, some clothes. I added a couple of things for an immediate departure (wedding album, diaries, a blanket) and hung up in a daze.

In spite of the diversity of life and culture that I’ve experienced during my life, there are so many things I take for granted. One of them, until now, has been that natural disasters tend not to happen near me. Even wildfires large enough to spread their smoke over Colorado Springs — twice in as many years- seem distant and untroubling. To have a wildfire in our city, especially so close to us as to make us flee, is entirely outside my realm of expertise.

This June, wildfires raged over Colorado. This photo is from the Denver Post, denverpost.com.

When shocked, the conscious mind does all sorts of amazing and bizarre things, first of which is to iterate down the list of things it needs to deal with until it finds something manageable. It’s why people save their television during a flood or evacuate an earthquake zone carrying a suitcase full of adaptors. Your brain can’t handle the fire, the flood, the devastation, so it latches on to something it can: your need for entertainment and escapism, the possibility that you’ll need a USB cable at an emergency shelter. The man who leaves his burning home with a pair of shoes in his hand seems foolish, but his brain has just connected the cost of replacing that home and the fact that those shoes were really expensive. In all my days of crisis intervention, I had learned to keep a cool head on my shoulders and had never felt that sense of inability to function. But after I told Nick to include the sentimental items, it occurred to me that the next things on my list — including my overflowing yarn stash — were my brain’s version of shock. In my head, a tiny voice was piping up to say, “Well, you’ll want to knit wherever you’re going, won’t you?” How novel.

The craziest part of all this has been the visceral-level realization that Nick and I are displaced persons (with a displaced cat) and that we’re still better off than most people claiming that title. Within a few hours of the fire’s spread, we had literally eight or nine offers for housing and a bunch of other offers for emotional, financial, and logistical support. This has been true across the Springs as well — whatever I have said in the past about its obnoxious politics, the city’s major strength is that its population has mobilized very quickly to provide shelter, supplies, and money for the evacuated and the fire fighters. We might not be able to prevent property damage or loss of wildlife by the end, but everyone is pitching in where they can. It’s overwhelming.

Being displaced has major downsides, of course, but at the end of the day we have support and connections. Worldwide, millions of people are displaced (evacuated, refugeed, or other terms) without any support network or any clue of where to go next. This fire appears to be an arsonist’s doing, but even if that’s the case, arsonists don’t hunt citizenry down. We’re not displaced by an army or in a country whose infrastructure has collapsed. We can conceive of a time, probably within the next month, when we’ll be able to go home or begin rebuilding. So many others cannot.

We are both so grateful to our friends for their generosity and support. In the middle of shock, on the edge of disaster, it can be difficult to remember the ways in which we’re truly blessed. We may lose “everything,” but at the end of the day we walk away with our health, our documentation, our cat, and with an entire community waiting with open doors. It has been difficult to acknowledge this through the shock, but I want to take the time to do it now: thank you.

Erica Laue
Erica first set foot on a plane when she was ten months old. 28 years, 18 countries, and four continents later, the travel bug’s still strong in her veins, and she's become increasingly engaged with issues of power, gender, sex, equality, and access around the world.

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