Sunday, October 15, 2017

Elders amid the California fires

My friend Ronni Bennett at Time Goes By highlighted the particular sufferings of Puerto Rican old people in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Even if their houses survived, elders are particularly vulnerable in a prolonged period without electricity, or easy access to clean water, and to stocked food stores. The weak response from the Trump administration and from too many mainlanders has made a perilous situation worse.

Bennett's post led me to take a particular look at how Northern California media is covering the plight of elders in our current siege of firestorms around Santa Rosa, Calistoga, Napa, Sonoma, and surroundings. There seem to be two notable themes.

Elders are particularly at risk when electricity and modern means of communication fail. This is not just about elders being not perhaps so decisive or fast moving in an emergency as younger people. According to an account in the Mercury News:

For the hundreds who remain missing, their families are holding out hope that their loved ones are also safe but simply unable to communicate.

That turned out to be the happy case for Nanette Williams, whose 96-year-old aunt Nora Hennings was found alive by sheriff’s deputies in her Santa Rosa home just feet from fire-scorched earth. With no cellphone, no computer, no email and no car, she’d had no way to get in touch but had come through the fire relatively unscathed. ...

[Carmen] McReynolds, like Hennings and a number of people her age, doesn’t have a cellphone, computer or email address. The telephone at her home isn’t working, and authorities won’t let the family friends who have volunteered to drive by her house close enough to investigate.

Volunteers with the Timber Cove Fire Department stopped by McReynolds’ cabin near the Russian River on Friday afternoon. Family hoped she had fled to the cabin, which she’s owned since the 1960s. But she wasn’t there. A neighbor in Santa Rosa told the family that police and firefighters had been in the area when the fire broke out, urging residents to evacuate. “We hope she got rounded up,” said Coke. “But there’s no sign of her.” ...

To be old in a rapidly changing world can amount to falling out of connection in times of extreme societal stress. There may be few practical remedies beyond applied neighborliness, but that seems a scary truth.

The other theme in coverage of elders' vulnerability is the casualty report as tear-jerker. Perhaps I'm being unfair to reporters here. In the midst of a vast, terrifying, ongoing disaster, pulling out human interest stories from the chaos seems an obvious journalistic device. And stunned, grieving relatives make appealing sources. Still these accounts feel over-saccharin and a little too canned. Two specimens of the genre from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Charles and Sara Rippey were the first casualties to be identified. They were also the oldest — he was 100 and she was 98. They had been married for 75 years and they died together during the first night of the fires as flames engulfed their condominium at Napa’s Silverado Country Club. They met in grade school in Wisconsin and married on March 20, 1942. They were so well known in the Napa community that the Napa County Register carried an announcement of their diamond wedding anniversary this past spring. ... Mark Rippey, one of their sons, was interviewed on KPIX television and said Charles died trying to save his wife. “From where they found his body, he was trying to get from his room to her room,” he said. “He never made it.”

... Carmen [Berriz] met Armando in Cuba, when they were 12 years old. They both left Cuba after Castro came to power and met again in Florida. They were married in Miami in 1962 and moved to Southern California the next day.

After 55 years of marriage, she died in his arms. Mrs. Berriz was 75. When the fire came, the Berrizes were unable to escape, so they held hands and jumped into the swimming pool of their rented house. They hoped to outlast the fire. He held onto her, but she died. He was badly injured.

All the deaths (and injuries) in the fires are tragedies. But all deserve to have their stories recounted with as few maudlin cliches as possible. And elder deaths are particularly subject to the temptation among overwhelmed journalists to have recourse to vapid banalities.
Meanwhile, my bank is urging me to contribute to the Red Cross. Before I took off for Nicaragua last week, the message was about Hurricane Irma. This week it is fires. I'm skeptical. Journalist Jonathan Katz makes the case that earnest Red Cross appeals may even do more harm than good.

The problem, as Katz sees it, is that the Red Cross is a dysfunctional organization that excels at raising money but has shown little evidence of its ability to spend that money wisely or meaningfully. The Red Cross takes in close to 3 billion annually, refuses to open its books to the public, and, according to Katz, has consistently failed to produce a useful breakdown of its spending after major disaster efforts.

... Red Cross perpetuates a tendency we all have to see disasters as opportunities for charity. As a result, we spend far less time thinking about how to prevent disasters in the first place. “It’s always about relief, always about helping people after it’s too late,” Katz said.

“No one makes the world a worse place when they donate to the Red Cross,” Katz told me, “but if they do donate and assume that’s enough, we’ll keep repeating this cycle over and over again.”

Obviously people need immediate help: shelter, food, clothes and the like. And perhaps the Red Cross is good at this sort of aid. But these horrible fires should also be forcing us to think about patterns of urban/rural development and land use, all in the context of a radically warming climate.

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