It's true; while Hurricane Ike continues to consume the daily lives of so many of us on the Gulf Coast, even those who came through the storm relatively unscathed, it is "off topic" on many forums and mailing lists.
Appropriate as that is - I mean, life does go on, particularly for people who have never experienced a hurricane - it's hard to remember when you're still handing out ice, food, and MREs to people who were severely impacted by the storm. When 1.9 million people across the state are still without power. When friends and colleagues have lost everything.
It is so hard to focus on the mundane, sometimes; disasters of this magnitude tend to bring priorities into sharp focus and harsh light. Some of us can't make small talk at the best of times; right now, we can't imagine how anyone else can, either. Little luxuries, like a hot shower or fresh fruit, once taken for granted, become signs of normalcy and are met with disproportionate gratitude. A stranger, trapped in a car for hours, waiting for rationed ice, water, and food offers a piece of chewing gum to volunteers directing traffic - a reminder that people can be extraordinarily kind and caring even at the worst of times. A nearby restaurant gives free food to volunteers, just to say thank you for letting their suppliers and customers through the POD lines.
But life goes on. In some parts of the U.S., it goes on blissfully oblivious. My brother-in-law called on Saturday or Sunday, from Minnesota: "I just heard you all had a nasty storm down there - is everything okay?" He hadn't heard a word about it until it was all over - and headed north. "A hurricane? Really?" Relatives overseas were more keenly aware of what was going on here, and expressed more concern.
Hurricane Ike has been blamed for thirty-some deaths from the Gulf Coast as far north as Canada. God only knows how many are missing, simply washed out to sea or buried under rubble on Crystal Beach or Bolivar Peninsula. Beaumont and parts of Louisiana were hard hit, as were parts of Arkansas and Ohio. Some in the north don't even realize their freakish weather related problems all stemmed from the same monstrous storm; they don't realize that Ike stretched 600 miles across when it hit land.
As the hurricane closed in, authorities in three counties alone estimated 90,000 people ignored evacuation orders. Post-storm rescuers in Galveston and the peninsula removed about 3,500 people, but another 6,000 refused to leave.
Nobody is suggesting that tens of thousands died, but determining what happened to those unaccounted for is a painstaking task that could leave survivors wondering for months or years to come.
The search echoes the chaos following Katrina in 2005, when bodies were turning up more than a year after the storm as ruined homes were dismantled and families returned after months away. Katrina killed more than 1,600 people.
Those outside Ike's destructive path will wonder why the price of gas has risen sharply. Already, they are quick to point fingers at suppliers, but here's a sobering fact:
Of the roughly 3,800 oil production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, Ike destroyed at least 10 when it blew through the region over the weekend.
In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita toppled a combined 108 platforms and damaged about 150 pipelines that gather and transport oil and natural gas from offshore wells.
The eye of the storm barely skirted the biggest concentration of oil and gas refineries near Houston.
It could have been worse. It could always be worse.
In fact, if dragging the Tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004 is "off topic" here, I could point out that it's not the first time Galveston has faced devastation:
Things are slowly returning to normal here. Many grocery stores are open again. Many have limited offerings in the way of fresh produce or frozen goods, and ice is at a premium. But we can get basic staples: bread, milk, juice...
Imagine, for a second, that you live in the greater Houston area. You don't want to waste gas, you don't want to sit in line for hours, only to be told that supplies and food have run out. You need information - you don't know if school is close or if your doctor's office is open. You don't know when power or water will be restored. You need refrigeration for your insulin. Your boss says "Come to work, we're open," but you have to drive treacherous, busy streets that now have no traffic lights. (One of the U.S.'s deadliest intersections is just a few miles from my home, and has no traffic lights, last I checked.) If you're lucky, you have Internet access; you can check here:
Imagine you've been without power for days, and haven't seen the news, yourself.
This does some of our neighbors no good, of course. Across the street from us, power has yet to be restored. Some neighborhoods have well water; without power, there's no way to pump the water up from the well. Some neighbors have gas stoves, but without power, they have no refrigeration. That's nothing, though. Some neighbors' homes and cars were crushed by falling trees and high winds - even as far north as this.
Our schools are still closed. Even my middle-schooler is starting to grow bored with video games; school is looking good right now. But his school was undergoing renovations and may take even longer to reopen, once power is restored. We just take it day by day...
No orthodontist appointment today; the office - within walking distance of our house - is still without power.
Big @#$% deal.
Remember thinking, "I will never get these images out of my head" after 9/11? After Hurricane Katrina? Barely sparing a nanosecond of brain power on them these days, right?
We tend to write off those who stayed in the hardest hit areas, despite mandatory evacuation orders. We call them stupid, and worse - angry with them for putting first responders' lives at unnecessary risk. But a few were trying to help others evacuate, and simply let time and circumstances get away from them. Like Frank and Dee Ann Sherman, who survived the storm at Crystal Beach.
The Shermans are...frustrated with news reports showing people complaining about no power or relatively minor damage.
"We see all of these people that are crying and moaning because they got some mud on their floor or their lights are out in Houston," Sherman said. "We don't see anything about our friends that died in Crystal Beach and about the fact that our world is totally devastated. I'm 60 years old and I have to start my life all over again."
So, let's not whine about the little stuff. For the most part, it's all little stuff. Some of us had some inconvenience and a bit of an adventure. For others, it's a matter of life and death and total loss. It's not healthy to dwell on disaster and pain, destruction and death - and it's far easier not to, when it doesn't touch us with its icy finger directly.
Can we get back "on topic," now? I wish. The day I consider this "off topic" is the day Texas is truly back to "normal." Me? My life's about as normal as it gets, except for the ridiculous stash of survival-Pop-Tarts in my cupboard. That might've been just a tiny bit excessive. But spare a kind thought, a prayer, and maybe a contribution to the relief efforts, if you can. We all share this tiny bluish marble that floats around the Sun; it is good to remember that, sometimes.