Higher ground

I’ve never lived through a flood, so I don’t know what it’s like to fear the water’s rise, hear the evacuation order given, take what can be quickly gathered and head for higher ground. But the recent string of natural disasters has reminded me of one event I did live through: the Los Angeles earthquake of 1971.

Like all families in L.A. that February morning, mine woke up shaking, as if we’d been yanked conscious halfway through a killer roller-coaster ride. The soundtrack was the startling sound of constantly breaking glass, as the contents of our kitchen cabinets, shelves and bookcases went crashing, in waves, to the floor. My brothers and I forgot the thing about getting under a doorframe but soon realized we’d survived a big earthquake anyway (6.5 on the Richter scale) without suffering any major damage.

Others were not so fortunate. L.A. was in shambles, having endured the worst quake in its history up until then. Freeways buckled, hospitals collapsed, and buildings crumpled. I remember learning that a church tower toppled over and killed a man.

School was canceled for the day, so somebody’s mom was smart enough to organize us teenagers to go door to door to check on our elderly neighbors. I knocked on Mrs. M’s door and found the normally fastidious woman standing there sobbing in her bathrobe, her gray wisps of hair in total disarray. Shards of glass and crystal from her figurine collection and china cabinet were strewn across her living room. Outside was even worse: The foundation of her home had jumped to the left, literally, about 4 inches. I wasn’t able to do anything about that, of course, but I remember thinking that even sweeping the glass up off her carpet made things seem a bit better.

Chrisanne Beckner’s story this week, “After the flood,” made me think about Mrs. M and all the other people like her who have to face hurricanes, earthquakes and, yes, floods alone or in care facilities. Living in a floodplain like we do, it’s important to remember that how well we survive a potential disaster will be defined largely by how well we prepare to safeguard our most vulnerable populations.