Tongues of Fire

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on October 29, 2007.

I’ve spent the last week worrying about fires in San Diego County. Last Monday my mother-in-law woke me up with a phone call at six in the morning. “Don’t worry about us,” she said, “we’re fine, but you’d better call your aunt.”

I didn’t know what she was talking about. I still hadn’t seen the news of the growing fires that ended up devastating the communities in San Diego County where my wife’s parents and my mother’s sister live, but I found out quickly and for several days I was unable to keep my mind at home in San Jose. My wife’s childhood stomping grounds were on fire. All told, four homes belonging to members of our extended family were endangered by the fires. Thankfully, everyone in my family survived the fires without losing any property.

But many, many people were not so lucky. The fires in Southern California destroyed nearly two thousand homes, and, as the rebuilding process begins, my mind is forming another concern: I am afraid that, as families and communities do the often painful work of rising up from the ashes, the poor in Southern California will find themselves neglected.

My experience living in an urban, low income community and commuting to work in a relatively wealthy neighborhood tells me that both government and private sector services tend to favor people with means and places where wealth is concentrated.

During times of disaster, the divide between rich and poor usually grows. Certainly this was so on the American Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where, in the French Quarter and other wealthier neighborhoods, life returned to normal with relative speed, while poor urban neighborhoods and small rural communities along the Gulf are still trying to recover from the hurricane more than two years hence.

Like Hurricane Katrina, the fires in Southern California paid no attention to social class in their devastations. Homes were lost in Rancho Santa Fe, one of the nation’s most exclusive zip codes, and on the La Jolla Indian reservation in the desert east of San Diego. The worst hit areas include Ranch Bernardo, where schools are good and golf is ubiquitous, and small communities along the Mexican border where life is hot, dusty, and hard.

It will be a test of California’s moral character to see if rebuilding and restoration efforts are as blind to economic status as are flames stoked by the Santa Ana winds. I long to live in a state where, after a natural disaster, the homes of the poor are reconstructed as quickly as the dwellings of the rich, where potable water and electric power return with equal speed to a doublewide trailer in the chaparral and an elegant McMansion in the environs of a country club.

So far the response to the Southern California wildfires has been remarkable. Both the State of California and the federal government seem determined to avoid the mistakes and misdeeds so painfully evident after Katrina. I pray this good effort continues and that the lives of Southern California’s poor fire victims return to normal as quickly as those of the rich.
PS. The title for this column pays homage to a song of the same title written by my brother, Morgan, and recorded by Foxglove, the band to which he and my sister Gywn belong.