Opinion

When urgency becomes the norm

I spent a recent weekend on the seashore in Westport, Wash. It’s easy to forget the allure of the pure Pacific Ocean, living here on Bainbridge Island on a salt water sound, or bay or harbor or canal.

“Seashore” is the normal word to describe most of our shoreline, but at Westport there is a beach, hundreds of feet of crunchy, wet, sugar sandy beach.

Usually my dear husband and I vacation farther north on the peninsula, where the cliffs are steep and the waves are mighty, breaking over giant timbers that have been hurled against the shoreline. The crashing energy, the size of the trees, the fragility of the cliffs are their own stark reminder of the vulnerability we all share.

But at Westport, at low tide, you see how the gently sloped shoreline allows for tiny, incremental rises in sea level. The waves break far from shore and roll gently in from a blank horizon reminding you that life keeps coming at you, even after you’re gone.

I thought of Westport this past weekend as Ike, a hurricane the size of Texas, bore down on Texas and the rest of the Gulf states. It’s hard for me, who has lived at altitude most of my life, to comprehend an entire area so few feet above sea level. My husband, a former Houstonian, told me to imagine Westport with a 20-foot surge of water headed its way.

I had other things I was imagining, or trying not to imagine. My youngest son lives and works in Houston. The satellite image of Ike preparing to pass right over him – pictures of flashing, angry orange, green and red swirls of destruction – left me chilled.

He survived just fine, thank you, although we did exchange text messages until after one o’clock our time. We were reassuring, soothing and upbeat with each other. I wondered if he was faking it as much as I was?

When I talked to him the next day he was outside in the rain, soaking wet. “I’m having the time of my life,” he said. As soon as the winds had subsided and it seemed safe, he grabbed his saw and axe and set about clearing trees and limbs that were blocking paths and driveways.

An apartment dweller, he didn’t have a shovel, so he was using his racquet ball racquet to keep the drains clear, and his dog was enjoying swimming in the newly-appeared lakes surrounding the buildings.

I’ve thought about the difference between hurricanes and earthquakes. They both can do similar damage, but there’s no CNN 24-hour coverage as an earthquake approaches, no satellite images of the impending disaster and no urgent messages from our governor or mayors.

When an earthquake hits, you go in an instant from the most banal moment of your life to what could be your last. The day the “Ash Wednesday” earthquake hit Bainbridge Island, I was in my broker’s office. I’d just taken off my shoes because I’d gotten mud on them showing property. I was holding them in a plastic shopping bag in my lap.

Within seconds, our minds caught up to the reality of the earthquake and we found ourselves both stuffed under her desk. “Oh no, oh no,” she said, and I, suddenly in the comforter role, said that we’d be fine.

Just before the intensity and noise seemed to double, she said to me, “Your hair smells really nice.”

“Thank you,” I said, “I have been using a new product.” Then we went back to worrying that the room might start falling in around us.

I doubt we would have been better off that day if we’d had warnings, especially since there really wasn’t much we could have done differently. (I would have left my muddy shoes on.)

How do people cope with the stress of a 20-foot surge being predicted to wash over everything they’ve built, their homes, all that they’ve come to love?

It seems ironic that we’re also hearing talk of another kind of surge, those in the voting polls after the campaigns. I’m not alone in feeling a loss of power as I look at the “satellite image” of a presidential campaign getting new life from the events of the last two weeks. I’ve listened to my daughter go from hope to cynicism in a short month.

I’d like to think that somewhere in this morass there’s high ground, where people can gather in enough numbers to succeed in demanding integrity, dignity and wisdom in our leaders. Never in my lifetime have I found the need to be so urgent.

Eve Leonard is an island writer and real estate agent

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