The Morning Report
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Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007 | Four years ago, Cheryl Hamano’s daughter got up early one Sunday morning to go to the bathroom.
She smelled smoke, and looked outside.
Ten minutes later their neighbors’ yard was on fire, and the family was scurrying to flee Scripps Ranch. Cheryl forgot her purse. Her husband told her not to go back and get it and they got away just before their house went up in flames.
The next day, while reporting on what was then becoming known as the Cedar Fire, I met Hamano at Mira Mesa High School. She and her husband, Ted, were sitting on a bench wondering what was in store for them. Cheryl was upset about a couple of things.
For one, she didn’t have her purse and her identification. She was wearing her son’s T-shirt and she had absolutely no proof of who she was.
Secondly, and a bit more enraging, was the fact that, in the hours before the hasty escape, neighbors had called city emergency operators worried that the fire they had heard was in Ramona was on its way to them. Emergency dispatchers reassured them that the fire wasn’t near and no evacuation was needed.
That turned out to be some bad advice and yet it was symbolic of the entire region’s awkward response to the 2003 fires.
This week, I immediately thought of the family as the story unfolded of a new firestorm.
Wednesday I called them. Had the Hamano’s rebuilt only to find themselves evacuating again?
More or less.
Cheryl and Ted were now divorced. It took them 18 stressful months to rebuild and, unlike their neighbors, they were unable to build a home that was bigger than the one that burned down. After the separation, Cheryl moved into a home in the same neighborhood.
I asked how this evacuation had gone. It was “definitely” much better, Cheryl said. Everything felt more organized and professional.
I suppose a hat tip is in order for local responders — Hamano wasn’t the only one effectively alerted that the fire had a chance of revisiting Scripps Ranch and dozens of other areas.
The fact that 300,000 or 500,000 or even 900,000 people — depending on the source — have gathered their things and evacuated has been cabled around the world. This massive displacement has been the theme of the words that accompany the astonishing pictures of this disaster.
There are many measurements officials and the media can use to judge the seriousness of a disaster. Clearly the preferred one this week has been the number of people displaced.
It’s not an exact gauge, of course.
You tell people within a certain quadrant, however undefined it is, that they must evacuate. Somebody adds up how many people live in that quadrant and, bam, that’s how many people were displaced.
NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams boldly proclaimed that it was the “single largest movement of Americans since the civil war.”
No wonder so many people sent so much food to Qualcomm stadium — we had a half-million man army to feed.
Observers have many other measurements to use. The tally of lives lost, after all, has followed every mention of the 2003 Cedar Fire since that hellish week four years ago.
Richard Carson, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, who studies responses to disasters, made a great point to me about lives lost as a measurement of such events: The number of lives lost is really a reflection of the success and efficiency of the evacuation of a threatened area.
If the entire city of San Diego burned to the ground, you theoretically could have evacuated the entire place without losing a single life. Of course, though, it would still be an extraordinary catastrophe. And losing one life is an awful tragedy no matter what event provokes the loss. No feeling human would argue that a fire where 15 people died was somehow less serious than one where 20 perished.
Today, the figure of $1 billion in damage came out as a new measurement. One billion. Does that number, however random, help justify this as the worst fire in the county’s history, as Sheriff Bill Kolender predicted it would be?
Tough to say. A representative of the Insurance Information Network of California told me that, in 1991, insurance companies paid out $1.7 billion to policy holders in Oakland after that city’s massive conflagration. Adjust that for inflation and you have a pretty big price tag. The Cedar Fire cost insurers $1.06 billion.
Carson said you’d have to add to each the costs of loss of economic activity, evacuation costs and the brutal bill from just trying to control the fires.
That measurement falls short as well. If no more lives are lost in San Diego, but yet it somehow was more financially costly than Hurricane Katrina, would anyone dare say it was more devastating?
With that, after all this searching for the true measurement of this disaster and its place in history, I was stuck. How do you quantify this thing? If I’m going to be part of this race to compare this all of these events that have become part of our national psyche, what measurement do I use?
I had, like many perhaps, comforted myself that these people were insured and would simply rebuild — and, like Scripps Ranch, they would rebuild bigger and better. How bad could it be?
Then I talked to Hamano. She had been insured. Her family was safe. But the stress of the fire had done unquantifiable damage to their lives.
Insurance couldn’t do anything about that.
“The stress never really left,” she said. “People think that once you rebuild from the fire, that it’s all back to normal. But it’s not — not always.”
The stress Hamano experienced is one of the most far reaching consequences of the fire. Unfortunately, it’s the hardest to measure.