Here Thar Be Monsters!

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18.1.13

Noah, Where Are You?

Drinking water?  Check.  Food?  Check.  Beer and booze?  Check.  Ark?  Damn, forgot something.

Here in beautiful west Jakarta, the rains have hardly stopped for four days now.  We got a little break today from about noon on, and blessedly, the flood waters run off rather quickly, so folks have been able to escape flooded homes or make repairs or get some supplies.

What a mess!  Yesterday, the West Canal levy broke and an eyewitness friend of ours working in the UOB Building at Plaza Indonesia reported seeing a "tsunami" rushing through the vast open area around the national fountain.  Cars were swept along and piled up at the downhill end.  At least 12 people are reported dead so far, with more than 18,000 homeless.  Water in some areas exceeded 3 meters/12 feet.

In our area of west Jakarta, we are literally on a peninsula, with only one major road open into and out of the area.  If the rains keep up, we will become an island in a sea of destruction.  Only a few hundred meters south of my house, one family we know spent two days on the roof of their house when the waters rose to the ceiling.

One friend, a British teacher who lives with his family about a kilometer behind us, sent this text, "Totally f#&ked. Water in house at knee level. We're stuck on top floor which thankfully is main part of house.  Still have gas, some food and water but the neighbourhood is up to chest level water..."  We offered to rent a Zodiac boat and come for them, but he waved us off after the waters started receding a bit.

Another family escaped by pushing their motorcycle through chest-deep water with Mom carrying the baby on her head.

The case study here is not the flooding, but the 'normalcy bias'.  People were panicked last night as the rains fell in incessant buckets and lightning split the sky.  By noon, when the rain let up, suddenly everyone went back to business as usual.

The problem is that the forecast is for eight more days of heavy rain, and the real threat is the run-off from the mountains to the south that have already swamped levies and are straining the flood gate system throughout the region.

At some point, flood gate operators are faced with a critical decision: either open the gates or lose them.  Opening them affords some amount of control, however it still releases a mass of water into certain areas and people and things will be lost at that point.

For our part, we've had a chance to put our preparations to the test, and have found some weaknesses that will have to be addressed.  Some examples of what we have done to mitigate our risk in this type of situation:
  • 50 gallons of drinking water and 300 gallons of sanitary water stored on a regular basis;
  • A healthy stock of rice and dried noodles, along with seasoning packets and other condiments;
  • An electrical generator capable of running the refrigerator, a couple of lights and one A/C;
  • An extra bottle of propane for the stove giving us about five months of cooking gas;
  • Enough sandbags to block the front of the house;
  • 10 inner-tubes on the top floor, along with a hatchet, to make a raft and escape through the roof (two tubes would be used to hold 5-gallon water bottles);
  • And finally, we chose our house based in large part on a topographical map of the city, showing this area to be one of the highest points.
Most people don't take the time to go to this level of preparation.  In fact, famiy and friends laughed at our inner-tube contraption...until today.  Now at least two families went out this morning and did the same thing.

Our fall-back plan is to paddle like mad towards the mountains and escape to our Far Side World Headquarters - Java Branch.  There, we have a full, working garden complete with bearing fruit trees and a second supply of food, water and gas, as well as clean clothes and a hand-pumped water well offering potable water.  Our farm is not far afield, as well.

Folks who go to this extreme of readiness (though we don't consider it extreme) are often laughed at.  One may recall the parable of the ant and the grasshopper, which I took to heart, even as a young age.  I also like my creature comforts, even in the midst of disasters.

I have always deployed my resources in a manner that offers me the most options for the least cost.  More than a couple of times, that mentality has saved my hide.

I invest a certain amount of time in any place I live to learn every possible route out of the area, including overland.  I don't like being trapped and I especially revel in the ability to skirt around traffic pile-ups and other signs of idiocy.  In some ways, being a mild enochlophobe (or is it misanthrope?) has its advantages.

I don't consider myself a 'prepper'.  A prepper is someone who simply hordes stuff for the sake of lording it over others when the s#&t comes down.  I prefer to think of it as being the one level head in a rag-tag group of panicked humanity who has an actual plan for getting back on track.

It's events like the current flooding in Jakarta that help one to evaluate who can and can't be trusted to act decisively in an emergency.  A lot of people like to think they would, but those are usually the ones sending frantic text messages and leaping out of windows to their deaths.  It is very rare to find someone who is cool and rational in the face of disaster, and who can act deliberately to remedy situations, rather than exacerbate them.

The thing is, most people will never know how they will react until confronted with an emergency.  It is very difficult to react deliberately and rationally when the flood waters are over your head and you're trying to push someone's fat butt through the window so you can live.  It's easy to think of these things in the abstract, but what happens when your lungs are burning, you're three feet under water, you have a large knife in your hand, and the only thing between you and living is that fat butt?

Hopefully, most of us will never be faced with that choice, but it is one to ponder deeply.  After all, is it better for one out of two to live, or both die?

I have long pondered the meaning of being human.  Philosophers have come up with a myriad of answers, from the ability to use tools to the ability to laugh.  I have come to the conclusion that to be human means to maintain moral and ethical behavior even in the face of certain death.  When you think about it, that is probably the most difficult choice any person could ever make, and the result would distinguish a human from an animal.

Emergency situations, such as the current flooding here, leave one with a lot of time to think, if you're not busy trying to survive.  On more than one occasion in the past two days, we've been faced with aiding people whose stupidity and lack of foresight left them very vulnerable, while our planning and deployment of assets has given us the ability to ponder such things.

We could have easily brushed off the other folks and justified it as survival of the fittest, but that is an animal response.  A human doesn't distinguish between stupid and smart.  One simply opens the door to anyone who asks, and shares what they have to the best advantage of all involved.

The global population, according to some soothsayers with fairly good records, may be faced with just these sorts of choices in the near future.  This flood may be a rehearsal for the coming disaster, a way to see who will and won't survive.

Preparedness is not just stocking up on food and water and having backup plans.  Real preparedness is pondering the really tough questions, playing out scenarios, and deciding up-front what your reactions will be when faced with an overwhelming threat.

If and when such things come to pass, will you lead the way to aid, to shelter and to rebuild?  Or will you step on any head to save yourself?  This is the most basic question we, as humans, can ask and answer.  It involves us assessing our place in the Universe and whether we see death as a finality or as the beginning of another phase.  We must decide whether we go out with dignity or survive with shame.

It is the rare person that can live a lifetime without coming face to face with these choices.  Some may face them many times.  How noble or ignoble are we as denizens of Universe?  And what example, what legacy do we leave behind?

Update Jan 19; 6:50pm: A number of people are making money offering raft services.  They will deliver you to a dry spot for about $15, or take orders and run to the store and buy goods for you at a premium.  I'm seriously thinking of buying a Zodiac boat as a business model.  Stupidity does have a price.  Normalcy bias running rampant!

 These are horrible choices to contemplate, and even worse to experience.  How many other lives is one life worth?  Jengis Khan famously said, "Every man must kill another to make room for himself in the world."  There is a perverse logic to this statement, but how willing are you to confront that moment?

If there is some Grand Accounting in the Sky, and like the pharaohs of old, we will stand in the balance with our hearts on the other side, will we pass the test?  And if this isn't the case, what have we gained or lost by being kind and helping others?  Are we truly nothing more than advanced animals?  Or are human beings, like the old stories tell us, something far more interesting?

Think of it this way: you have just survived a disaster and all you know is gone.  All you have is two cans of beans.  A perfect stranger walks up and asks for some food.  Do you freely hand him the second can, or do you kill him so he won't tell others?

It may seem like an abstraction, but it could happen at any time.

It's not enough to be a 'prepper' with your vast stockpiles of food, water, medicine, and the like.  You must also ponder the deeper questions of who and what you are.

This is the road less traveled.

All images from the last 24 hours...