By Kirk LaPointe

The newspapers have asked readers that question regularly for months. Since the last Boxing Day tsunami, since FEMA’s fumbling on Katrina, since the feeble response to the Pakistan earthquake and since the seemingly ceaseless warnings of the pandemic or the swift and surreal avian flu, we have wondered if we’re prepared. The media has given people tips on assembling disaster kits and provided them with the best possible advice on how to endure the first few days without electricity, running water, evacuation routes or a civil society to shoulder the burden of rescuing and keeping the peace.

But there is one issue that isn’t discussed. It is the notion that our physical readiness is much less of a challenge than our emotional willingness.

When you see people elbowing each other for Halloween candy in the supermarket, or jumping the Starbucks queue, or practically tackling the rival bidders for the latest downtown condominium showcase, there’s reason to doubt our capacity to set aside enough thought to deal with the strain and perhaps permanent adjustment of our values to handle the aftermath of a major natural disaster.

I’ve watched and read admiringly of the Southeast Asians who have rebuilt, with much help from abroad. But I didn’t see the same common purpose in New Orleans. And, with only a whiff of threat, it was astonishing to watch the selfishness as Hurricane Rita approached shore.

It might be too much of a bromide to restate how conditioned we are to look after ourselves first and foremost, how we’ve established material comfort as a first principle in our lives, how we’ve forgotten our neighbours and limited our involvement in community. There’s a relevant promotional ad for a Comedy Network television series taped in Vancouver, Robson Arms, in which the lead actor says he doesn’t know his neighbours — after all, he’s only been in the building for two years. If it weren’t so true, it would be funnier.

I don’t think the social terrain is firm enough to deal with the shaky ground we’re standing on. I’m not sure our leaders would lead us, or that we would follow. I’m not sure our systems would serve us, or that we would wait to be served.

In other words, I doubt we’re ready.

I look at how school children are learning so few life skills to work together in a jam. I don’t know of an office that takes its fire drills seriously, and I can’t imagine the desks rattling and the floor cracking and anything other than pandemonium ensuing

Where we are is where we can’t be, and at the risk of sounding like one of those apocalyptic fogies I’ve always decried as seriously in need of shedding their tin-foil hats, I think the time is coming where we won’t be able to run away from the serious threats risking our health and safety. I’m thinking about the cyclical, seemingly inevitable influenza that appears nearly upon us. I’m thinking about the weird and unmanageable avian flu that jumps to the human race, the freakish health disaster for which we will scramble to subdue. I’m thinking about the Big One that turns my townhouse into a detached dwelling. I’m thinking about the broken glass everywhere underfoot, the tainted water in the pipes, the natural gas lines whistling in our district, the loss of the Internet, the destruction of people who might lead us in our disarray, the worrisome situation every time night falls and the nastiest among us see the opportunity for advantage. This is what happens in middle age, I suppose.

But I think it deserves the attention that we gave deficit reduction, or the blood scandal, or the infernal sponsorship debacle. Anything less leaves us to our own devices.

Now, unlike the character in Robson Arms, I happen to know my neighbours and I have great faith we’ll pull together. Do you know yours? Do you have that same confidence? Do you see what I mean?

First published in Nov 2005 in Women’s Post Magazine

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