As I write this, Colorado’s Front Range is in the middle of its worst natural disaster in about 100 years. For people like me, who live here, it is a flood of tragic proportions. To the world, it is just another disaster. When many of my out-of-town friends, family and colleagues reacted to the flood with a torrent of indifference, I realized something. As a society, we’ve acquired an immunity to crisis. We scan through headlines without understanding how stories impact people, even those we love. Junk news melds with actual emergencies, to the point that we can’t gauge danger anymore.
Even in Boulder, at the beginning of the flood, everyone welcomed the deluge. College kids rode their bikes through the knee-deep water that had settled over the bike path. Families trundled into newly formed lakes with their inner tubes. Children splashed with delight in the muddy, opaque water, the same water that would soon become a burial ground.
Night fell, and so did rain, in sheets. Families put their kids to bed; everyone attempted life as usual. Wesley Quinlan and Wiyanna Nelson, a 19-year-old couple, were driving home from a party with two friends. When their car got stuck in the torrent of water that had submerged Linden Street in North Boulder, Quinlan, Nelson and their friend Nathan Jennings climbed out of the car to swim to safety. Jennings and the other friend survived. Quinlan and Nelson drowned, their bodies concealed for hours by the muddy waters of the flood.
In nearby Lefthand Canyon, a firefighter was examining the damage when he saw a wall of water approaching. He climbed a nearby tree just before the water hit. Trapped above the rapids, he remained in the branches all night, the first of many captives of the flood.
It was hard to understand the full extent of the flooding that first night, though the evacuation sirens along Boulder Creek offered hints. The next morning, when images showed the mountain towns of Jamestown and Lyons transformed into islands without drinking water or electricity, when it became clear that newly formed rogue rivers were collapsing bridges and uprooting homes by their foundations, we Coloradans finally began to realize that life wasn’t going to be the same for a while.
Nobody ever anticipated a FEMA-level disaster. And when it became clear to us that things were bad, the rest of the world still lacked comprehension. Perhaps disasters have become clichéd. In the same breath that we view images of destruction on the news, we text friends and read about Kardashians. We don’t see our own vulnerability until we’re standing knee-deep in mud in our basements.
In a matter of hours, the dry, sunny town that I call home was transformed into a delta of rubble and debris, a generic Disaster Zone. I wanted to help, but the rain wouldn’t stop. All I could do, all any of us could do was watch and wait, watch and wait.
So far, we’ve watched and waited for five days. Emergency management officials are saying that nearly 18,000 homes were damaged and about 1,500 destroyed. Eleven thousand, seven hundred people have been evacuated. Six are dead. No, seven. I just read it in the news.
Boulder is my backyard, my home. To me, the floods are urgent; they are an emergency. To others, our floods are another face in the crowd of headlines. Today alone, I read in the news that 260,000 people had to evacuate Kyoto due to a typhoon. In Washington’s Navy Yard, someone murdered 13 people with a gun. There’s the new episode of “Breaking Bad” and the threat of war in Syria. Every headline screams to be first in line. Everything is a crisis. And let’s face it, in media language, Colorado is a small mountain state that likes to ski and smoke pot. Decimation here doesn’t echo as loudly as it does in New York, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles.
I wasn’t that surprised when only one of my out-of-town friends called to check on me that first morning of the flood. People are busy. They’re stoned on headlines and tweets, emails and texts. But on the second and third days of the flood, I still only had two friends contact me. When I sent my immediate family an email stating our Colorado situation in no uncertain terms, they responded with surprise. They knew about the floods, they said. But they didn’t realize that I was affected.
I’d like to think that in our networked world, it’s easy to comprehend how the things we read about in the news or on social media might be impacting friends and loved ones. It seems, however, that we’re so drowned in data that we’ve become comfortably numb. Even our reactions have become passive, disconnected. Hitting “like” on Facebook or leaving a sympathetic tweet doesn’t come close to the human power of a phone call, especially for someone facing the loss of their home, their health, their life. We’re too disengaged to connect the dots between disaster and its human impact. And that scares me.