Deep Denial

Mother Nature jumps into disaster preparedness with two feet, reminding us that this is still her dominion.

February 18, 2003|By SUSAN REIMER

We journalists are journalists 24-7, if you know what I mean. We are always on the alert, hooked into world events as if they were our power source and ready to report at a moment's notice. Journalists never take the day off.

Late last week, my editors asked that we all keep our "journalistic hats on wherever we are" and report the community's response to heightened terror alerts.

Like the old firehouse dog that I am, I felt my blood pump faster, and I asked: "What?"

Seems that while I had been working the basketball concession stand and arguing with my teen-ager about her curfew and loading the dishwasher one more time, the Bush administration had increased the terror alert to, I don't know, hot pink, or something, and I had missed it. All I'd heard was something about a possible snowstorm.

So everyone was out buying duct tape and plastic sheeting instead of bread and milk, and I was completely out of the loop.

"I have a teen-ager who is trying to escape every time someone opens the front door," I muttered under my breath, "a husband who worked late on our anniversary and a son who uses his college e-mail to continue the arguments we were having when he was in high school.

"Duct tape ain't gonna fix any problems I got."

Turns out, news just seems to find me wherever I am. For the next two days, everywhere I went, people were volunteering to me their plans in the event of a terrorist attack.

Michele, the woman who does my nails, reported that she and her husband had made a plan in the event that al-Qaida unleashed a dirty bomb in the area.

Each would leave work, pick up one child from their respective schools and then meet in the parking lot in Kings Dominion.

"Kings Dominion?" I asked, ever the probing reporter. "What exactly was the thinking there?"

Glossing over their choice of rendezvous points, Michele also said that she had thrown changes of clothes for everyone in the back of her car, along with a case of Slim Fast and a carton of Del Monte fruit cups.

"Slim Fast?" I asked, still probing relentlessly. "What was the thinking on that?"

The top coat was barely dry on my nails when my husband returned from Home Depot, where he had purchased, among other things, the 99-cent gas masks recommended in that morning's newspaper by society maven turned ad hoc homeland security chief, Sally Quinn.

"My hero," I said, sarcastically. "If al-Qaida decides to attack us with deck stain fumes or drywall dust, we're safe."

When he explained that the little white face masks were particularly effective when sealed with duct tape, our daughter dismissed the whole idea as a recipe for a major break-out episode.

Ironically, while in Home Depot my husband cast a longing gaze on an ergonomically correct snow shovel, but left the store with 10 pounds of batteries instead.

"Just another thing to find a place for in the garage," he said of the shovel.

That afternoon, my fellow mothers and I gathered for a Valentine's Day tea and immediately talk turned to plans for a terrorist attack. (Don't ever let any reporter tell you they have to "dig" for news.)

My friend Kerry said she'd given her 17-year-old son a credit card for use only in the event of a national emergency.

"Bad move," I volunteered. "I gave one of those to my daughter. When I asked about the charge to South Moon Under, she said it was an emergency. She needed a birthday gift for Hayley."

Dismissing my cautionary tale, Kerry said she and her family agreed to flee Annapolis in the event of an attack on Washington and meet at Rehoboth Beach.

"Rehoboth Beach?" I asked, thinking that at least the parking lot at Kings Dominion was a confined space. "What was the thinking there?"

Across the tea table, Laura reported that she and her kin had held a frantic telephone conference call the night before and, failing to come up with a plan of their own, agreed to meet at Rehoboth Beach in the event of a terrorist attack.

"If I don't make it," said Laura, "at least Kerry will be there."

"Rehoboth Beach is kind of a big place," I said. "Did you think about, I don't know, maybe choosing a restaurant?"

But I had clearly violated the first order of journalism, which is do not interject yourself into the story, because no one was listening to me.

My friend Susan said that she understood that no cell phones would be working, so she had instructed her scattered family members to call a third party in a distant location to report in.

"Everyone is going to call my parents in Vermont," she said.

The difficulty is, she added, her mother and father are going to be in Spain for the next month.

And I was sitting there with a tea cup in my lap thinking that if al-Qaida knew how the women of America were preparing for their assault, they would die laughing in their bunkers and this whole nasty business would be over.

Well, my fellow mothers and I awoke Sunday morning to a world still safe from terror, but with 12 inches of snow on the ground and that much more still coming.

Seems we had been preparing for the wrong disaster.

We had no milk and no toilet paper, but enough duct tape to keep the snow out of our children's boots and enough face masks to protect their little noses from the cold.

All day long, the men shoveled, and the women cooked, and the kids played in the snow. There is something about that much snow that removes all anxiety. Nobody is going anywhere, so nobody frets much about it.

At nightfall, my neighbors gathered in each other's kitchens and shared whatever food and drink each had. I didn't have milk, and I didn't have bread, but I had spare ribs and birthday cake.

Everyone was rosy-cheeked and smiling and quite content to have been forced by the weather to give up the daily struggle and just enjoy one another's company.

After everyone trundled home through the drifting snow, I thought to myself that if al-Qaida was looking for a method to bring Americans low, it had better cross snowstorm off the list.

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