The whiners

Posted: Sep 23, 2003 12:00 AM

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- As you may have heard, we in the Washington, D.C., area experienced a genuine, honest-to-goodness hurricane last week. The pre-storm hype was what we've come to expect here whenever nature shows the smallest signs of temper. I recall fondly a radio announcer from the 1980s who used to tease Washingtonians by leaning very close to the microphone on days when snow was in the forecast and intoning: "Ladies and gentlemen. It is going to snow. We are all doomed."

Still, a hurricane is nothing to be cavalier about, and we took the necessary precautions -- batteries, bottled water, turned the porch furniture upside down. I was even able to prevail upon my husband, a hard-charging lawyer, to come home Thursday afternoon (unprecedented!). The children were delighted, as children are, at the prospect of something dramatic and unusual in their lives. The local schools (overly cautious, if you ask me) shut down on Thursday morning, though there was narry a drop of rain till long after every bus would have been safely back in its garage.

Isabel arrived very politely on Thursday evening with just a light rain and saucy breeze by way of introduction. When relatives from out of town phoned to ask how we were getting along, I scoffed. "It's raining."

But as night fell, the winds picked up. At 10 p.m., we lost power. "Can we sleep in your room?" begged three pajama-ed boys. Sure. At 7 a.m., we surveyed the damage. Nothing terrible. Three trees down (one had been a favorite). The outdoor grill, a fairly heavy object, had been blown over, and we were under orders to boil the water before drinking it. Fairfax County's water treatment plants had lost power during the night.

Schools were close, of course, and three thoroughly modern children were not about to sit around playing whist or doing dramatic readings as their 19th century forebears did for entertainment. But we coped. We read. We went to McDonald's in search of coffee for mommy, who is not at her (ahem) very best without it. We had visitors. And we were lucky. Power was restored at 4 p.m. on Friday.

Most people in the region responded to the hurricane with good spirits and fortitude. People helped one another clear trees away. One neighbor who had power hooked up a long extension cord to the home next door so that his neighbors could at least operate one computer and a hot plate. Friends arrived for unscheduled overnights complete with pets.

But not everyone. There is a loud minority of Americans who are spoiled and whiny. Why did Fairfax County not have a back-up generator at its water treatment plants, they demanded. The county's website asserts that this was impractical. But let's assume it was because they decided not to spend the money. Is that so odd?

This is the worst storm Fairfax County has endured in decades. We almost never get hurricanes this close. Is Fairfax County supposed to plan for every conceivable emergency no matter how remote? It costs something to build and maintain generators. There are tradeoffs. You balance the cost against the likelihood that it will be needed. It isn't as if we were without potable water for weeks.

The boil water order lasted only three days. Is it so unbearable for a bunch of coddled and pampered suburbanites to brush their teeth with bottled or boiled water for a few days? This was an emergency, for heaven's sake. Life throws a few curves. You're extraordinarily lucky if you avoid tragedy -- you can't expect to waltz through life avoiding even minor difficulties.

This identical frame of mind is evident in the lawsuit filed by relatives of the Sept. 11 victims. If something terrible happens, someone should be made to pay. They're suing the airlines and others for negligence. So the twin towers ought to have been designed to withstand two jet-fuel-laden passenger planes purposely crashing into them? The airlines should have made their cockpits more terrorist-proof? The first is ridiculous. The second may be sound in hindsight, but hardly amounts to negligence.

There is a wonderful camaraderie, ingenuity and simple generosity that surfaces in times of adversity. It's just too bad the whiners insert their discordant note.