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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Balance urgency, practicality

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

On the one end, there are those who freak out and take every news report as a clear and present danger aimed directly at them.

On the other, there are those who blithely ignore the headlines, the warning signs and the little voice inside their heads that tells them to be careful.

And then there is that middle ground, the vast area of watchful awareness and informed decision-making where people say to themselves, "I'm not going to lose my mind over this but I'm not going to be stupid, either;" the place that, thankfully, the majority of people sanely and safely inhabit.

But those people the ones who aren't bodysurfing in the rain, aren't ulua fishing in a lightning storm, aren't making margaritas with spoiled fruit in a rusty blender plugged into a waterlogged generator don't make it into news stories very often.

After every skydiving mishap, reporters go out to the airfield and ask the folks signing waivers if they're scared.

After every shark bite, reporters go out to the beaches to see if people are afraid to go in.

After every sewage spill, news crews capture images of swimmers ignoring the signs to venture into the water.

And as each threat and crisis looms then passes, our attention predictably waxes and wanes. The end result is that significant threats get confused with imagined or improbable scenarios and critical stuff gets blown off with paranoid demands and nothing gets done. The lessons of tragedy get lost in the cacophony of fear and frenzy.

It wasn't too long ago when people were freaking out about "suspicious powder substances" on their mail. Remember that? The emergency scanners crackled with calls all day long for weeks. Folks were so sure the terrorists were sending them anthrax in the mail to their apartment in Makiki or their house in Kuli'ou'ou. There were so many false alarms that the whole thing started to seem silly, which, of course, can be potentially dangerous.

A few years back the thing to worry about was boulders falling from hillsides. For the most part, the big rocks held fast during recent rains, so the issue hasn't been top-of-mind. But what happened to those worries? What happened to all those boulders? On the hill, out of mind.

For a while, folks were sure that mold would kill us all. Or that illegal fireworks would burn down O'ahu. Or that every tropical storm that formed off Mexico would come and take out Kaua'i.

As we press our experts and leaders for answers following the big rains, the sewage spills, the dam break, there needs to be a balance of urgency and sensibility, of realistic assessment and rational remediation. Not everything is going to get fixed. Not everything needs to. But we can't let the important stuff get lost in the din, and we can't be distracted by the next crisis that comes to town.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.