Distant Disaster Hits Home
By Jorge Casuso
Sept. 12 -- There were the non-quantifiable signs that a major catastrophe had altered, at least in small ways, daily existence in this beach town 3,000 miles from Tuesday's terror -- diners sitting closer together or strangers striking up intimate conversations.
But there also were more quantifiable signs -- a local bookstore reporting a jump in the sale of prayer books or luxury hotel rooms booked for the Emmys sitting empty.
As Santa Monica began settling back into its usual routine Wednesday, a sense lingered that life had perhaps irrevocably changed, that the almost unreal attacks that leveled two of the world's tallest buildings and a section of the nation's symbol of military might had in a sense marked our childhood's end as a nation.
Suddenly with a leap from innocence to experience what seemed our biggest problems suddenly appeared, if not trivial, certainly much less pressing. City spokeswomen Judy Rambeau, who routinely fields complaints from the public, noticed a difference.
"They seemed a little more subdued about their issues," Rambeau said of the callers. "I think we're all feeling, 'What are our priorities? What should we be getting upset about?'"
Even holding a routine council meeting was difficult.
"I felt complete emotional exhaustion and numbness combined with the realization that I had a responsibility as mayor to at least convene the meeting so the council could deliberate the appropriate next step," said Mayor Michael Feinstein.
"I just couldn't go to a meeting last night," said Councilman Robert Holbrook, who was the only council member absent at Tuesday night's meeting. "I just had to be with my family."
Kathleen Rawson, executive director of the Bayside District, which runs the Third Street Promenade, noticed that visitors to the usually bustling commercial strip were behaving differently.
"People having lunch together are clustering a little closer," Rawson said. "People tend to be kinder and gentler to each other. There's a lot of reflection. There's a calmness. People are trying to connect."
Jeff Mathieu, the City's head of Resource Management, also noticed a gentler demeanor, a greater willingness to be understanding.
"Our tolerance and understanding really come forward in the dealings of everyday matters," said Mathieu, who oversees the airport and pier. "I don't know if it's eerie or extraordinarily different. It was really unusual."
Pilots and aircraft owners had no problems complying with orders not to even move their planes across the tarmac until the airport reopens, perhaps as early as Saturday or Sunday, Mathieu said.
"There was a feeling of respect and tolerance," Mathieu said.
At Shutters on the Beach Hotel, guests stranded by the disruption of all commercial air traffic shared their thoughts and feelings over a complimentary breakfast in the hotel lobby. Strangers acted like friends.
"People were talking that had never talked to each other before," said Armella Stepan, the hotel's general manager. "It was really powerful."
Guests at the hotel, who were not charged for telephone calls, have been in a state of limbo, calling relative back east or monitoring events on television sets, Stepan said.
"People are very frustrated that they can't go where they want to go," Stepan said. "There's an awkward calm. People are in a crisis mode just waiting."
It is still unclear how much business hotels will lose, but one large hotel reported losses of more than $100,000 in food and beverage sales alone and seven Santa Monica hotels offered emergency rates to stranded guests.
"The longer LAX stays closed, the longer people have to stay," said Misti Kerns, who heads the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I think that for the very first time there is concern about flying domestically and the safety.
"What will happen I don't know yet," Kerns said. "How can we even guess how it (Tuesday's terrorist attacks) will impact domestic travel. I think it's too soon."
If it is still unclear how Tuesday morning's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will affect Santa Monica's burgeoning tourist industry, it has spiked sales of religious books at at least one local bookstore.
Steve Rodriguez, one of the owners of Angel City Bookstore and Gallery, said the store near Main Street sold six religious books in three hours Tuesday. Most were prayer books and a couple dealt with near death experiences.
"It was unprecedented," Rodriguez said. "All of them said it was because of this (the terrorist attacks)."
The connection to the attacks was not as clear cut, but Trader Joe's ran out of bottled water after Tuesday's suicide missions.
"We did actually see some people buy quite a substantial amount of water and canned goods," said Cesar Hernandez, the store's assistant manager. "It was noticeable but not dramatic."
More dramatic was the reported calming of L.A.'s aggressive driving practices, with motorists acting more courteous. John Lausevic, who commutes daily from Thousand Oaks to his Santa Monica office noticed the change.
"Traffic was smooth, there was no jamming," said Lausevic, who owns Pacific Gold Coast, a building contractor specializing in mold eradication. "You can tell they're all listening to the radio. I only got cut off once by a guy from Arizona who didn't use his signal lights. It was really weird."
If many Santa Monicans felt compelled to pray or stock up on supplies and assume more courteous road habits, it seemed that almost everyone had a need to talk.
Some 50 City staff members attended a noon meeting in the council chambers Wednesday with a psychologist who specializes in coping with events so emotionally disturbing they seem unreal.
"There was quite a range of emotions and experiences," Rambeau said. "People are still very tuned in with what happened. It was quite emotional."
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