The Silver Lining in San Diego

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We San Diegans like to boast that we live in "America's Finest City." And we're probably right — the eighth largest city but "with a small-town feel." We often say our worst day is still better than the best day in any other place in the world. But what happened in the last few days has caused some of us to reconsider the jingoistic slogans we emblazon on our ball caps and t-shirts.

It started out as an OK weekend, except the San Diego Chargers weren't playing and the weather had been in the bone chilling 60s. Then came the first flames, in one area appropriately named the Witch near Ramona. All of a sudden places we long-timers never knew even had a name became labeled. The new monikers still don't help any of us know exactly where the neighborhoods are. But we can smell them now. They are choking us. Within 24 hours, nine fires were ravaging the San Diego area. Paradise was Apocalypse Now.

Ember storms flooded a good portion of San Diego County. When the hot-red dots hit you, they felt like the burn from sparklers on the Fourth of July, but lots of sparklers. And there was nothing celebratory about them. They stung, they burned, they dried the skin, they made you itch. Everyone was displaying the dark spots they left. And the embers sowed fear and destruction.

With more than half a million people evacuated, we become part of one of the largest peacetime displacements of Americans since the Civil War. But a strange upbeat underlies the evacuation. Maybe it's the result of our having survived catastrophe before. Four years ago the Cedar Fire became the worst San Diegans had ever seen with thousands of acres burned and billions of dollars lost.

This time around, the county seems to have a better communication system in place. Action and reaction is quicker. Businesses have beefed up their outreach. U-Haul is offering free storage units for a month. Many hotels all across the county have cut their rates in half. One man called a radio station offering his apartment free of charge until the evacuees find other accommodations. A friend tells me one downtown Ethiopian restaurant offers free meals to evacuees, though not a lot of people have stopped by. And these aren't isolated incidents. The number of looting cases crossing police counters: just two.

We're all making new friends as we commiserate. We all talk to each other and are amazed at what we actually take with us when we have to flee our homes. We look at each other and what we're wearing, a style we have learned to call "evacuwear." One Rancho Bernardo resident, whose wife had gone ahead to a hotel, was left picking through the clothes for her. He was certain she'd want her velour sweats and deck shoes. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen her wear her deck shoes in years, but since she'd had them for so long, she obviously wanted to save them.

On the street, I ran into a single mon on welfare headed for refuge at Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Chargers. Her husband hasn't paid her child support in years. Still, she tells me that every time what she thinks is the worst that can happen actually does happen, it's not so bad at all. Right now, she was happy to have a place to go. And a group of professional clowns had shown up to entertain the displaced at the home of the Chargers.

On the street too were Sherrie and her eight-year old son from fire-free South Park. They had collected old clothes and pennies to help the evacuees in Qualcomm. They took them to the stadium and then had to bring them back home. The next day it was learned a communications error was responsible for donations being turned away. Undeterred, Sherrie and her son say they'll try again.

We may not be acting as we thought we would. Matter of fact, many of us are acting better. A new sense of solidarity has come over San Diego. We're nicer. We drive better. We let you in when you ask. Let's hope the upbeat goes on.