As a new year begins, heed the lessons learned
December 27, 2006
Today, Dec. 31, 2006, is the last day of the year, a symbolically important and interesting moment in the life of a year and of the world.It portends the end of things, which makes room for the beginning of new things. It signifies the basic nature of change, the only universal constant, and every time it arrives (the last day of a year, that is) it brings to mind all the good and the bad that passed during the preceding 364 days.On this particular day, we arrive at the end of a tough couple of weeks for Colorado, when a blizzard shut down the state’s largest airport and shone a media spotlight on our total incapacity to deal with even predictable catastrophes.Let’s see, it was a blizzard, which is common enough around here, and it was in the dead of winter, which should not come as a surprise. But we reacted as though it was some entirely novel experience visited upon us by a vengeful God out of sheer spite, arriving with no forewarning and unprecedented fierceness, catching us with our collective pants down around our knees.Exactly why is it that the city of Denver was still digging out some side streets a week later, when the snowfall was not that immense (a mere couple of feet)? Is the city government made up of transplanted “snowbirds” who have forgotten what snow is, what it does? Don’t they plan for sudden bad weather? Is the institutional memory in Denver City Hall so shallow that a snowstorm causes panic? Why didn’t they put plows on the noses of the trash trucks, hit the streets and get it done?Why, exactly, were thousands of passengers stranded at Denver International Airport for days on end, sleeping on the floor with young children underfoot, getting very little in the way of assistance from the airlines or anybody else? How could it be that a mother was featured on a national news program, stared at by my mom and sister a thousand miles away in utter disbelief, angrily and tearfully describing a brutal stay in a cold terminal when there are a multitude of hotel rooms with showers and beds within slingshot distance of the airport’s parking lots?And this was nothing, keep in mind. Imagine if something on the level of Hurricane Katrina were to hit Denver. Why, there’d be people dying everywhere, water filling the streets, a government in paralysis, entire neighborhoods laid to waste … wait, that happened already, a little over a year ago to a lot of poor people.If we, as a nation, are so baldly unprepared for even a moderately troublesome event like a blizzard, what in hell would we do if something truly unprecedented, horrific and catastrophic were to happen? We’d crash like a computer when the plug is pulled, that’s what.The utter fragility of our food delivery systems, out transportation systems, all our essential services is pathetically laid bare every time something like this happens, from Katrina to the Blizzard of ’06 and then some. And when the chaos begins, our government sits in its marbled halls and sticks its thumb up its butt while our corporate shepherds simply stand back, count their coins and watch the sheep mill around in terror, occasionally falling underfoot to be trampled by the herd.One such potential event is staring us in the face: the possibility of a pandemic spawned by the avian flu virus. Another is the possibility that some whacked out terrorist will set off a dirty bomb, or perhaps more than one, in the midst of one or more of our national centers of commerce.And if a damned blizzard could wreak havoc on the kind of scale that we saw last week, if a hurricane can cause the kind of dislocation and upheaval that we saw last year and continue to see in New Orleans, imagine what either a pandemic or a well-placed terror attack could do.Even here in the Roaring Fork Valley, our grocery store shelves went empty as people scooped up food the holidays and delivery trucks couldn’t get through from the Front Range. Think how much quicker they’d go bare if we were in a fear-driven frenzy to horde what we could against the possibility of a long siege.We’ve set ourselves up for a very awful enlightenment should such a situation arise. Because when that light suddenly dawns on us, I’m afraid it will show us at our very worst before it shows us at our very best. And the scenes on the streets and in our neighborhoods could very well make your worst nightmares seem tepid and fluffy and fine.As I write this for an early holiday deadline, there’s another storm on the way. I only hope that, if it’s another doozy, we handle it better than the last one, and we start to learn the lessons we’re receiving.Happy New Year, fellow travelers.John Colson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.