It is a familiar phenomenon. Whenever the media predicts any kind of unusual weather event--blizzard, hurricane, tornado, flood--people stock up on bread, milk, and eggs. These, it seems, are the common denominator foods that are the hallmarks of disaster preparedness. As if someone had said, "We may be trapped in our homes, but we're not giving up our French Toast, dammit." Hence the name, French Toast Syndrome. Funny tho, there's never a run on syrup. You'd think there'd be fistfights over the last bottle of pure mapley goodness at the local local Bi-Lo, but no.
And we should probably define "event." For people where I live, along the Northeast Corridor, an event means rain, snow, and/or wind with possible flooding and/or power outages. It does NOT mean Katrina or anything of that magnitude. For this week, and this week only, I'll add earthquake to the list.
Now there are a few people who buy just the essentials: meds, bottled water, baby food (if they have babies), pet food (if they have pets), and maybe a handful of batteries. Because face it, most "disasters" that strike the Northeast Corridor only interrupt the tedium of daily life for a day or two.
But why is there an annual rush on snow shovels? What happened to last year's shovel? Did it get jilted for some new iShovel? Did it get thrown away in March under the mistaken belief that winter surely will never come again? Because if it's simply sitting neglected and forlorn at the back of the garage, it should, logically, be joined by this year's shovel, and then each year by a subsequently jilted shovel, until at last we are awash in snow shovels. But then you'd expect to see snow shovels featured prominently in summer sidewalk sales, busheled together upon the green lawns along with outgrown children's toys. But again: no. I figure they all go to some big landfill that resembles a gargantuan porcupine made whose quills have handles.
Anyway, what's this got to do with the current disaster, Hurricane Irene? Well, there's been the mass panic one would expect with any approaching hurricane, and the accompanying buying frenzy on items like bread, milk, eggs, bottled water, and batteries. But if there's a summer disaster equivalent to the snow shovel, it's the flashlight. Where did last year's flashlights go? We had a 4-day power outage in our area from June 24 to 29, 2010 due to a tornado. Surely all the flashlights purchased then have not given up the ghost. And I didn't see mountains of flashlights featured in our townships annual yard sale. Yet, with the mention of Irene, customers picked the hardware and department stores clean of flashlights quicker than a school of pirhanas could pick a tapir to the bone.
Perhaps the answer is that we derive something from such large-scale panic, even if the situation doesn't warrant such a dramatic response. Perhaps it gives us a sense of community and common purpose in a life that seems increasingly void of such things. Like all those "where were you when the big rains came" stories that anchor us, both in time and in our communities--they let us recall with gratitude those times when we were helped, and with pride those times when we could be of help to others. Disaster preparation is one of the few times people think of themselves as part of a geographic community facing the same struggle. And maybe it's not about the shovel or the flashlight but about the reassurance that we can still take care of ourselves, our families, and our communities.In the aftermath of Irene, whatever she brings, we'll all be out on our lawns, surveying the damage, offering consolation and help. And maybe that's worth a few thousand stacks of French Toast.
Let's all be safe out there.