Sunday, November 16, 2008

This Must Be Hell

Every year in the late summer when the sun begins to grow a bit dimmer, the air gets lighter and the evenings cooler, people across the country begin to think of Back To School, new shoes, or maybe even to plan for the holidays.

But in southern California when Labor Day is greeted by a chorus of unhappy children, the residents wake each morning wondering when the Santa Ana Winds will return. The Santa Ana Winds, the hot, dry, sometimes 100+ mile per hour winds that pick up a spark from a backfire and turn miles of coastal properties into one big marshmallow roast, the winds that lift up truckloads of sand from the desert and carry it in seconds to the homes of the residents miles away, that bring 90 degree heat and 10% humidity so that everything dries up -- eyes, nose, throat, the grass, the trees, people's nerve endings, everything one big tinderbox.

And then the fires come. First one, often in a place that nobody except the residents ever even heard of because it is a new development, a claptrap collection of overpriced crowded stucco homes with small lots and no trees, given its own name, sometimes with wrought-iron 5' tall fencing around the exterior so the developer can charge an extra $50,000 per home by calling it a "gated" community, as if that would keep out everything that might harm the people who borrow more than they can afford, with adjustables, people waiting for the "adjustable day" with the same dread people used to have at the thought of "judgment day," the people who drive long distances to work, who never see the other family members living in the same home, the people who wonder whether it was such a good idea to buy this overpriced kindling pile with the tacky fence on the exterior. Their places are often first to go up. Flames, smoke billowing so high that the man in the moon must wonder how anything could survive.

Then the media swarms. All of them because Southern California Fires are Big Business, particularly right after an election when most people have turned their TVs back to the sit-com stations, tired of too much news reporting about nothing. So they come with their trucks and their reporters all dressed up in their fire wardrobes, trying to look as if they are part of the professional fire-fighting teams. But finding soon enough that their hair gel and contact lenses are no match for the winds, heat, and flames that they face.

Then the next fire starts. Another community. Something new. Then it becomes a part of the cable news coverage, breaking in to the very cute and always wearing his New Orleans compassionate face of Anderson Cooper who says things like "well I hope everyone will be careful," because he is nice. Then the others chime in. What is the right thing to say when an entire community is in flames?

We have helicopters from the news stations, pilots and reporters so very grateful to be covering something other than the commuter traffic or the errant and probably drunk car driver being chased recklessly through the streets by squads of L.A.'s finest, all to the cheering throngs of unemployed residents who position themselves at intersections to wait to see the chase, not knowing what's going on but cheering anyway because they are so bored, because the police represent "the establishment" (or the man), the same invisible ruling class that will not give these people a job, so they cheer the fleeing driver even as he endangers their lives and those of everyone else, because he's probably "one of them," and he's thumbing his nose in a big way.

Then comes the next fire and the next, so that pretty soon every news station is showing the satellite photos: "See, see, we've got fires stretching from San Diego all the way up to Montecito." As if we may just have outdone ourselves this time.

Montecito is where extremely unbelievably rich people live. I think if you're not rich and you venture onto their streets, they just shoot you dead then throw your body in a ditch for the hungry coyotes to feed on. Montecito is also where some of the scummiest of the scummy, thieviest of the thieves, criminalist of the criminals from the Wall Street Boys, the Hedge Fund Scum, began buying up the land in recent years to hide money, in some areas essentially buying up most of the coastline so that normal people no longer have access to the beach. They've bought the ocean. Maybe the fires will take it back. Maybe the fires will run from the mansions of Montecito right down to the waves of the Pacific Ocean, reclaim the beaches for the people.

One of the interesting responses to these types of disasters is the question of how the officials, the people with money, characterize the disaster. On Friday, for example, a trailer park burned down, I believe 500 trailers melted, gone, and all the poor people with their very few worldly possessions are now laying on cots in school gymnasiums wondering when they will be thrown out onto the street and where they will go then. People who live in trailer parks do not have emergency funds. That's because they're so poor that every day is an emergency for them. Getting something to eat qualifies for an emergency if you're hungry enough.

My bet is that one of those rich churches in Southern California -- I guess you could call them "gated" churches because you have to be rich to afford the price of admissions, can't get into the parking lot if your car costs less than $100,000, the women can't get in unless they bring a certificate of recent plastic surgery and the men have to bring tax returns showing they fall into the "qualifying" tax bracket -- otherwise they should go to the valley with their own kind -- I think one of those churches will send some over dressed (but very young looking with large breasts adorned with enormous jewel-encrusted crucifixes) ladies into the gymnasiums for a photo op, to be published in the L.A. Times Society Section to show that not only are they incredibly young-looking and well-dressed with huge breasts and diamond-studded crucifixes around their necks, but they also have compassion for the trailer park people. Then they'll start a charity collection box in the back of their church, over to the side, with a small hand-lettered sign saying "For the Poor Trailer Park People," and people will bring either a can of string beans or onion rings to drop in there so the trailer park people can have a nice Thanksgiving. Or at least they could if they also had a turkey. And a pot to cook it in. Then of course a place to eat it. But it's the thoughtlessness that counts, right?

When the fires are in any communities that end in "Hills" or "Beach," then the response is different, then we have governors, presidents, senators, representatives, movie stars, Silicon-Valley billionaires all speaking out in favor of the wealthy, committing public funds to assure that the wealthy will be fully compensated (and a lot more if you get the right attorney) for their losses. Trailer park = private, personal, unfortunate. "Hills" or "Beach" = national tragedy.

How many of the burned-down homes were under-water? In Montecito, for example, people who bought in the past few years would have paid $2.0 million at a minimum. Property values are down 40%, which means the house is now worth $1.2 million. Insurance pays the full mortgage. So it looks like the Hedge Fund Scum in addition to looting our treasury on their way out of town will also get every single penny back from the mansions they bought all over California in recent years. Pity.

Santa Anna was the name of the President of Mexico at the time of the Alamo. Remember the Alamo? Where our childhood heroes like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie valiently defended our nation. Well, actually, they were in Mexico now that I think of it. And the real dispute between the Yankees living in Mexico and the government of Mexico was that the Yankees brought slaves, and slavery was illegal in Mexico. Oops. And the Yankees also attacked and drove out the Mexican military -- drove them out of their own territory -- in 1835, so the Mexican attack on the Alamo was kind of a response to that. But other than that, "Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier."

Some people think the Santa Ana winds were named after the Mexican president, much despised in the U.S. because he killed our guys, and despite what the facts are, we all are still pissed about that whole Alamo incident.

Other people say the name of the winds comes from a Spanish term, winds of the devil, and has nothing to do with the president of Mexico.

This much is clear: politicians, real estate developers and people will come and go, but the Santa Anas will beat us every time. Given the fact that this is a desert subject to earthquake and fire, given that water is scarce and the roads impassable, it might be that an intelligent approach would be to stop the construction of new homes and assist people to relocate to more sparsely-populated states. I think California may have reached its limit.

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