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Published: Thursday, 10/25/2007

Disasters bring out best in us: Blade retiree traded Florida storms for California fires

BY TOM ENSIGN
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

Tom Ensign is a former columnist for The Blade who retired after 32 years at the paper. He now lives in Santee, Calif., a suburb of San Diego. This is a guest column he wrote regarding the wildfires in California.

SANTEE, Calif. - I have become a national disaster expert.

This was not my intention when I retired from The Blade some six years ago. But it's certainly the way it came out.

Let me give you Toledo-area folks a little advice. When you retire, you might want to rethink your desire to travel to the usual retirement areas. They might not be as desirable as you think.

Since I retired in 2001 and settled in such popular areas as Florida and Southern California, I discovered that maybe Toledo wasn't so bad after all.

Let's face it. During my 30-plus years in the Midwest I never had to face multiple series of evacuations because of hurricanes and uncontrolled brush fires.

As I write this, I am sitting in a trailer in Santee just north of San Diego virtually surrounded by uncontrolled brush fires (by last count, eight), and while there is no immediate danger to this area, the air is thick and we can see billows of smoke in areas all about us. We are more or less at the mercy of the wind.

There are uncontrolled brush fires to the north, south, and west of us and nobody can predict what will happen. Although we are relatively safe at the time, there is an apprehension that hovers over the community. What happens if the wind shifts?

Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated from danger areas. Thousands of homes have been destroyed. Highways are closed. People are apprehensive and while there is an outpouring of local, state, and federal help, there is a general feeling of fear and insecurity.

I think I'm handling things pretty well. After all, I've been through this sort of thing before.

After I retired from The Blade, I rented a condo on the beach in Cocoa Beach, Fla. For the first year it was wonderful. I was a barefoot beachcomber. Life was a dream. It was an existence of golf and sunshine.

The second year it all came crashing down. I went through three major hurricanes in two months. And they were violent. I lived on the barrier islands, so I was ordered to evacuate. And I did for the first two. Then I got mad when the third one came around and I decided to ride it out. I don't remember much about the hurricane, but when I woke up it was gone.

But I was getting tired of such frightening disruptions to my life. That was enough. So, I sold everything I couldn't take with me and headed out to San Diego to live near my son and his family.

Unfortunately, nobody told me about the fires.

It's strange to see how people are reacting. For the most part, folks are pretty much philosophical about it. My son, who is a California Highway Patrol officer, is putting in plenty of hours, but so far he is not in any particular danger.

His friends, who live in Ramona, Calif., were driven out by the fire. So now his family, which consists of a wife, two children, two dogs, and two cats, are now joined by another husband and wife, two children, three dogs, and two cats. And they have no idea how long this will last.

The thing that upsets me is that no matter how much effort is exerted, there really is no way to contain the blazes. The best firefighters seem to be able to do is wage a defensive action - save a home now and again, keep people moving out of harm's way.

Where I live, in Santee, although many businesses have closed, others are conducting business as usual. But there is an undercurrent of apprehension.

I went to the pharmacy to drop off a couple of prescriptions and told the lady that I would be back tomorrow to pick up the medicine.

She smiled at me and said, "Oh, I'm so glad you said that."

"Said what?" I replied.

"That you would be back tomorrow!" she answered.

There is fear, but a firm resolve that I find refreshing. Often, the worst of times brings out the good in people and that's what I've observed in both my Florida and California disasters.

My son's friend's wife put it nicely.

As they were fleeing the flames in Ramona, the roads were hopelessly clogged. Everyone was tying to get out at once. It was a terrible gridlock and took them two hours to go three miles. Yet, she said, people would allow cars from side streets to get into the traffic lanes. Something that would be unheard of in normal times.

The same thing was true in the evacuations in Florida. I really believe that disasters do bring out the best in us.



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