SAN DIEGO — Welcome to Katrina on the Coast. Natural disasters have their own brand of irony. Whereas the problem in New Orleans was too much water, now we know what happens when you don't get enough.
San Diego is one of the most desirable and livable cities in the country — even if it is one of the most expensive. Blessed with perfect weather and friendly people, it has a quality of life that lured my wife and I here almost three years ago. Now we can't imagine living anywhere else.
There's just one little thing that the Chamber of Commerce seems to have left out of the brochure: It turns out that America's Finest City is also America's most flammable.
Take it from a refugee. Many of us here who report and comment on the news found ourselves part of the story as we joined nearly a million people in rushing our families out of the path of one of the most terrifying firestorms in U.S. history.
The process of evacuating comes in phases. First, there's an automated reverse 911 call from the police department — informing you that you might have to evacuate at some point ("just thought you should know"). Then a few hours later, another call advising that you leave ("just suggesting"). Finally, there's the mandatory order ("you will leave!") and a knock on the door by a police officer telling you that you've got 10 minutes to pack up your life, or however much of it fits in your car, and get going.
But one thing remains difficult to comprehend: the fact that San Diego County is now witness to what is being called the largest evacuation of U.S. civilians since the Civil War.
My wife and I and our two small children left our home Monday morning. We got the first call at about 7 a.m., and by the time the second one came in later that afternoon, we were gone.
In similar situations, some people opt to stay put and take their chances. But there is something about the experience of looking out your front door at a red-orange, smoke-filled sky and hearing reports that the flames are 10 miles away — and then looking at the faces of your children — that focuses the mind.
As a journalist, your instinct is to grab a notebook and head for the fire, even if your editors would never give such an order. When the fire is bearing down on your family, things are different. Daddy instincts take over. You still grab your notebook and laptop — but you also pack baby formula, diapers and bottled water. You grab a few family photos. And you worry about one thing — getting your family the heck out of there.
Through it all, you try to make yourself useful even if everything else about the experience makes you feel helpless. What else do you call it when your fate and that of your home and family depend entirely on which way the wind is blowing? And, this week, the Santa Anas were blowing every which way.
And once you get to your place of refuge — in our case, a hotel 30 miles away — you spend all your time thinking about when you can go back. We returned home on Wednesday after the fire changed course, sparing our home and neighborhood. Smoke still filled the air, and ashes covered our driveway.
Many of the 12,000 people who huddled in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium were not so lucky. Yet they'd probably be the first to resent media comparisons to Katrina and the debacle at the Louisiana Superdome. At Qualcomm, by all accounts, things went smoothly and there were plenty of supplies, volunteers and services to go around.
Unfortunately, there were those who took advantage of San Diego's generosity. After police announced on Wednesday that they would be going through the stadium to check driver's licenses and make sure everyone there was truly an evacuee, several hundred people headed for the exits.
Then there were the six illegal immigrants who — in a despicable act — are suspected of trying to steal truckloads of relief supplies from the stadium. The scoundrels wound up being arrested by Border Patrol agents, who were there to help local enforcement with evacuations and crowd control — and not to enforce immigration law.
As with any disaster, the San Diego fires brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. Luckily, there seems to have been much more of the former than the latter.
I'm not surprised. This area has some new scars, but San Diego is still one fine city.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE