After the Disaster – and why Less is almost always More

There are days when I realize how powerless we humans are against the forces of nature. No time is this more apparent than during a natural disaster.

An act of God as it is sometimes referred to, is dreadful for those involved, but it can also remind us of what really matters in life. After an earthquake, a hurricane or a flood, our day-to-day problems tend to vanish. Trivial matters become irrelevant. The primary concern during a catastrophe is always the safety and well being those involved. Only once the question of survival is assured can material damage even be considered. Therefore, living through a disaster puts our values into a whole new perspective.

Last week, Andalucía was under red alert. All emergency personnel were on call, even the Spanish Foreign Legion. After days of howling winds, massive rain, continuous lightning bolts and earth shattering thunder, the storm finally subsided, leaving a horrid mess in its wake.

For those of us who are spared personal losses during a disaster, there is always a certain question that is difficult to ignore. Why was I the lucky one? Seeing the destruction all around, it is clear that we can all be victims of natural disasters. Next time, it can just as well be us watching our car float away, or our home crumbling in front of our very eyes. While the first reaction of the unaffected is generally relief and gratitude, it is hard not to feel empathy for the misfortune of others. Shouldn’t it be our communal duty to assist those who have suffered where we were spared? After all, we are in the same planetary vessel, heading for the same not-so-distant final shore.

 

My husband and I offered to help a couple we recently met whose home had been ruined by the floods. Though we were merely a few extra hands, at least we could do something. Having never been to their house before, we followed the Google directions, while simultaneous getting instructions from the owners over the phone. The flattened trees, twisted road railings and towering mud banks along the river indicated what was to come. Our friend warned us that under no circumstances were we to take a certain bridge, which likely was on the verge of collapse. Was that the one we had just driven over? Too late, it was time to abandon our car and continue on foot. Somebody had ploughed the main access road, though any subsidiary roads were literally gone.

Like everybody else in town we had seen online videos about the destruction around Ronda, yet these could not prepare us for the real thing – the post-disaster wasteland.

The family’s home, which is surrounded by two rivers and a creek, had been attacked from all sides. Just like the rivers had gobbled up new land, the water had also piled up huge sandbanks that had never been there before.

Passing a lonesome shoe likely brought from another home up river, we saw the top of our friends’ car sticking out of the mud. The rest was buried, symbolically, as that vehicle will never drive again. At the front of the property was also a huge pile of rubble – mattresses, beds, broken furniture and warped doors –to be taken to a dumpsite once the road have been unearthed again.

 

When it came to he home itself, WW1-type trenches were dug around the outer wall perimeters to create access. I could detect the vague layout of the former manicured gardens by the top of the stone fences, which like the crowns of a couple of buried trees were protruding from the mud. A faded pink flamenco dress was hanging to dry over the old well. Scattered about or all embedded in the mounds of dirt were material victims of the flood – unrecognizable clothing, a plastic mixing spoon, a broken drawer, a single hiking boot, underwear on the loose, blackened bedding and a crumpled canvas that once might have been a work of art.

Neighbours and friends had already been at the site and done the grunt work, so we were set to dig out a bathtub where we later hosed down the family’s treasured and now mud-encrusted carpets. Others helpers were scraping grime off floors or carrying more damaged furniture to the ever-growing rubble pile.

Yet, it wasn’t until I got into the home that I understood the extent of the destruction.

Wherever you are, look around the room. Imagine a murky stream suddenly bashing in through the door. The water rises far too quickly for you to do anything. What should you rescue, if you even can recall where anything is with the drama at hand? What do you bring when you have only seconds to decide?

Imagine the water now also starting flowing in through the windows. In a matter of an instant, everything below your chest-level is under water. Your books, furniture, carpets, photo albums, electronics, trinkets from travels, inherited treasures, your passport, diaries and all your important papers. Absolutely everything that is not sitting in your Cloud… Hopefully before this point, you and any other residents will have had the wherewithal to escape, only being able to bring what you can grab before running for your life. If you are lucky, you will be able to drive off before the last escape route is also flooded. Otherwise, you must head for higher grounds and pray that the storm will stop soon.

We went back today to help scrub down whatever furniture that had survived. Divine intervention or not, there was a welcome reprieve from the dark skies, and even a spot of sun. The home-owners were seemingly calm throughout. I wondered if it was the shock of it all. Or maybe it was the fact that once you have experienced such calamities, nothing will face you?

Walking through the post disaster site, I was once again reminded of how insignificant and flighty material things are. There are times when the concept of less is truly more. At least it is clear as day that the more we have, the more we have to loose. For all the material possessions we clutter our lives and homes with and for all the things we yearn to buy and wish to own in the future, in the end it is only stuff, which can float away with the next tidal wave.

It doesn’t bode well for our communal future, as floods and other disasters will be more frequent in times to come. So, on this All Saints Day I can only hope that some of these heavenly creatures will send a bit of mercy our way…

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