The Way We Disaster Now

When it comes to disasters, we're looking for blockbusters. Those out-of-nowhere acts of God that offer little chance of meaningful precautions—a fantasy that's strangely comforting. Unless you spiral off into prepper-style lunacy, there's no way to anticipate them. We welcome the chance to throw up our hands, go with the flow and helplessly wait out the consequences. It's why Godzilla and whatever zombie onslaught du jour sit so well with us. They're the sound of mankind getting walloped in a totally straightforward fashion. As with most fantasies, the blockbuster disaster is something we cling to instead of facing an unpleasant reality.

Last Friday, hell came to Portland. That morning, regularly scheduled tests of the city's water supply turned up some nasty bacteria called E. Coli, but not the same as the stuff from raw chicken blood, since that would be really disturbing. This was just some lesser, probably dung-borne bug that caused the runs in anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. The samples were both conclusive (the water was bad in multiple places) and vague (there was no way of knowing how widespread the contamination was). The only thing for the city to do was to issue a BOIL ALL WATER alert.

As small-scale disasters and public health crises go, it wasn't much. You can imagine what the immediate consequences were: a run on bottled water, lots of folks jumping to conclusions about whatever their gut was doing that day and probably a higher than usual rate of dehydration. Then it really started to sink in that, for at least the next 24 hours, water was our enemy. This was a new reality we were living in. It wasn't as crippling as, say, having no toilet or shower, which I once had a landlord ask me to do for an entire day in Houston. But this kind of imposition went beyond mere inconvenience. It actually changed life from minute-to-minute—the kind of slow, insidious warping of reality that really got in your head the longer it went on. As it spread, you wondered exactly where it would ever stop.

If it sounds like I'm making a big deal out of nothing, or trying to sensationalize news from a place that rarely makes CNN, I apologize. I really did start out trying to take it stride. I'd had an upset stomach all week and this gave it meaning. There's nothing quite like the feeling of an emergency alert that feels tailor-made just for you. All of a sudden, your bad week is everyone's problem and you’re right up there at the front of the parade. The creepiness started, though, when you tried to do anything other than drink a glass of water. That part was easy. It was the gray areas, the parts you really hadn't given much thought or bothered to prepare for, that snuck up on you. Like washing your hands. Sure, you could do it, but how much soap was needed? What if you splashed water on your face by accident? What if it went in your mouth some? Could I shave? Who knew? Who even cared? It seemed like food and drink would be unaffected until places started closing. My personal favorite: Coffee places, in a rush to prove that they never let their water actually reach a boil, called it a day soon after the news was announced.

The very scary world we live in isn't monsters rampaging through our cities.

And then there was the small matter of other people. I didn't see riots in the street or anyone going all agro and looting because that's what people do when society's infrastructure collapses in medium-to-large ways. But if what was in my head was any indication—or the general sense of unease I got from my coworkers—you could tell there was something in the air, something wrong, when you passed a stranger. There was a good chance everyone was thinking about the same thing, worrying about it and wondering how it would continue to affect them. The problem became nearly abstract. Portland was a problem town and everyone in it was either worrying, trying to cope or living it up in a booze-soaked enactment of gallows humor. There was something delirious, even funny about it, until you remembered that things weren't getting better until someone official said they would. The signs over faucets and soda fountains in public places gave the whole thing a real institutional sheen. The frantic, repeated phone alerts that said nothing, or the same thing, reminded you that this was anything but normal.

Twenty-four hours later, it was over. Whatever had fouled up the water no longer held sway over this city's reserves. The announcement also came with a not-so-subtle "please stop calling 911" meant for hypochondriacs like me. Portland's Little Crisis That Could ended as suddenly as it had started and with the whole thing in the rearview, it's hard to remember why it ever seemed like a big deal. And yet that feeling of fear, dread, call it what you will, that was unrehearsed and, for me, unanticipated.

It's also why I'm still taking the memory of it all seriously. What if something worse were to happen? Not in a sudden, climactic sense like fire or flood, but the kind of creeping, slow-build woe that we're more and more likely to see in the future? When shit goes down, it's not going to be zombie wars or The Day After Tomorrow. Instead, think climate change, which has unfolded over decades in ways we still can't fully fathom. Or the long-term effects of medications, preservatives and additives, genetically modified snacks. Unless nothing ever goes wrong ever again, which isn't going to happen, we're all likely to come off as a little more paranoid, more attuned to the little things. Otherwise, we'll all be caught sleeping. And then there's the question of information. We're totally reliant on public authorities and other experts to explain the situation to us. And that opens up the possibility of cover-ups, selective truth-telling and, the kicker, human error. Over the weekend, we were informed that very few people experienced anything resembling symptoms. Anecdotally, I know at least six people who did. I don't want to dismiss either possibility, so I'm left wondering.

The very scary world we live in isn't monsters rampaging through our cities. It's fracking underneath towns no one's heard of. It's cyber-terrorism and sleeper cells and a million more insidious human behaviors that take the literal meaning of terror to another level. The world isn't safer, just sneakier. And I honestly don't know if I'm happy to know what that feels like. An asteroid strike from above would be so much simpler.

Bethlehem Shoals is a writer living in Portland. You can follow him on Twitter here.