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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

The wind picked up.  The last of the monsoon season has been quite breezy, especially in the afternoons where the breezes from the north east gain speed, gust into the open window from the balcony, rattle the doors.  I was due to take the dog out, but kept a wary eye on the swaying tree tops and falling branches, dead sticks raining down on the park below like the storm that had yet to come.  Boxes – I know nothing else to call these silly organizers we bought from Ikea – and papers flew about the apartment, forcing me to close the door and switch on the air con.

I looked out to the west, to the park.  A large branch seemed to drift past, leaves still attached, ruffling with the motion towards the ground.  Then I heard the crash.

No single branch had fallen.  Half of an entire tree, at least 15 meters tall, had broken from the base and fallen to the ground, right on the walkway around the far end of the park.  The park fence lay buried under the tangled mess of branches and splinters, and farther down, I would find out later, one of the houses on the far side of the easement had its fence taken down by the very tips of the tree’s branches.

This is around four-thirty in the afternoon, prime dog walking time.  It is, simply put, amazing that nobody was hurt.

The crowds flocked.  Braving further falling wood, folks brought their cameras along with their dogs, marveling at something going wrong in the Lion City.  One woman held a shattered slat of bark, sap glistening on the edges.  The sap of this tree was red, blood red.

But, this is the Lion City and within hours, the tree fall was cordoned off.  The next day, a crew freed the larger branches from the fence and cut down anything that might further snap and fall.  Three days later and all that remains is the large trunk, stripped of all protrusions and anything that could pose further danger.  Foot traffic resumed around the outer path, expats off towards the green line and downtown in their slacks and collars.

Life goes on.

As a city, Singapore is a marvel.  Things happen like this the world around.  It is the nature of things to fall down, to come crashing down, and the nature of us hairless apes to pick up the pieces.  Cities deal with their disasters, big and small, as best they can.  The best government in the world isn’t a democratic union or a federation, it’s a municipality, the people that buzz about city hall that ultimately have to live in whatever shit they create.  In Singapore, I’ve found, there’s a civic pride that mandates rapid reaction to the thousands of small issues that happen in our shared lives and the local authority that enables it.

Americans, is this reminding you of the antithesis of a certain city in Michigan yet?

Of course, looming over all of this is the great divider – money.  Singapore, if not flush, certainly has a healthy amount.  Flint, not so much.  But it did put me in a frame of mind of how a local government responds to issues.  A fallen tree isn’t half as serious as mass poisoning – not even a single percent as serious – but its a danger that can’t easily be corrected by a single person without authority.  As I read about Dr. Horrible’s successful caper in Flint – oh, I’m sorry, it wasn’t a comic book villain’s plot, but rather the result of fuckery and foul dealings of an at best disinterested state government – about the “City Mangers” that are assigned to have full autocratic rule over a failing municipality, it illustrates what makes any city work – or fall.

A webpage came across my view this week – I shared it on Facebook but will do so here as well1also, read this article describing the project.  It’s a series of science fiction pieces that describe life after the “Big One” that Oregon is 2overdue for.  They’re horrifying and deliberately so.  California’s faults had a period of activity in the 80s and 90s that released a lot of massive pressure.  Oregon hasn’t had a massive earthquake for over 300 years.  This has received a great deal of press recently, which of course creates a different kind of pressure – upon the municipality of Portland, as the largest city in Oregon, to lead the way in earthquake preparedness.

Yes, the state, and to some degree, the feds, have to pitch in, but it’s always the city that has to deal with the details.  Will Burnside work as an evacuation route?  Will the bridges hold?  If we lose all but the Tilikum crossing, how will we regulate traffic across the river?  What’s the expected damage from landslides in the West Hills?  How people will die, and no – not how can we prevent that – but rather, how can we limit the numbers?  The devil, indeed.

Which is what I think makes Singapore so successful.  The municipal’s attention to details merged with the national authority, with no other agency to report to, no other concerns to switch focus away from the betterment and greater good of the populace and the city.  Listen, I’m not saying that we should all be city-states, that’s illogical and ridiculous, but I do understand the traditional conservative argument of local power over regional.

Yeah, yeah, I’ll let you re-read that and catch your breath.  The sky isn’t falling.  Not yet.

The power in our building went out last night, right around sunset.  One moment, just another Sunday night, watching a replay of LeBron and co take on the Celtics, listening to the homerific Cleveland announcers3spoiler: they’re all homers; the next, nothing.  Silence, profound and comfortable.  For about two seconds until we realized that the air con went with the power as well, and within seconds, as the air stilled around us, it got quite unbearable.  Windows opened, phones became flashlights as we tried to assess the damage.  Neighbors peered their heads over the balcony railings and confirmed mutual darkness, as folks jammed the lines to the management and security offices.

We?  We went to the pool.

Then we went for ice cream.

All told, it was a nice night to not have power.  The breeze was steady and strong, making for a comfortable walk down and back, and while the power was not back on after our excursions, I sat out on the balcony, letting the breeze cool me as I read poetry on my phone.

I had encountered one of the security guards near our tower after our ice cream trip.  By this time, the power had been out just a shade under two hours, so it was getting to the point past curiosity.  Sleeping without any fans or air con might not the most comfortable – how fucking privileged am I? – but more importantly, a hundred refrigerators without power might be an issue if left overnight.  The guard of course had no ETA, but told me that they had called SP Services – the national power agency – which had confirmed that the issue was indeed a local issue, a problem with the building.  Well, I guess that was obvious.  But, no fear, said my friendly guard, the contractor is on his way over now.  I joked with Bev once alone that the contractor was on his way to switch the breakers back on, thank the guards for their time, and then bill the condo $300 for his.

Twenty minutes later, a hundred beeps and a few “whoop!”s from the various open windows around us accompanied the light’s return as the contractor primed the breakers and threw the switch back on.  Our long building-wide nightmare was finally over.

Okay, so it was more of not much of an annoyance, like the tree, miraculously not hurting anyone and only being a repair bill for some chain link fences and the time for the woodcutters to clean it up.  Small disasters that mean nothing in the grand scheme of things, but someone has to think about them, has to know how to deal with them.  After all, it is a truth about our world, everything eventually falls down.


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