Daily disaster

Jeff vonKaenel

This is a story about homelessness, murder and levees breaking. And it’s a story about a $20 breakfast and the bonds that unite us.

On the third Thursday of each month, I try to attend the Interfaith Service Bureau breakfast held at Mo Mohanna’s Grand Ballroom on J Street. I’m one of about 100 people representing many faiths who pay $20 dollars for breakfast. Joining us are members of the homeless community, who eat for free.

I am sitting with Pete, an older man wearing a coat that has seen better days. Pete has lived in Sacramento for 15 years. Before that, he lived in Chicago. I try to make small talk about baseball. But Pete’s not a baseball fan. He’s more interested in breakfast, and says he appreciates the meal.

On my right is Roy Grimes, past president of the Sacramento City Unified School District board. Roy’s suit has never seen a bad day. The other gentleman at our table is in his own world. He has food on his plate, but he does not eat. He does not talk. We let him be.

The head of the Interfaith Service Bureau, the Rev. Dr. David Thompson, steps up to the stage. First, he introduces Pork Chop, who leads a moment of silence for Bernice Nickson, a homeless woman who was recently murdered near Eighth Street and Capitol Mall. Pork Chop asks the single women present to be careful and names some groups that will protect them. Then Shyawa Duerte, another friend of Bernice, reminds us that homelessness does not define a person. Shyawa speaks beautifully about her quiet friend.

Today’s lecture will be on flood preparedness. David says that it was the faith community that responded best in New Orleans. He wonders, “Are we ready in Sacramento?” No one seems sure. Sacramento Department of Utilities Supervising Engineer Bill Busath comes onstage. He has slides showing what would happen if a levee broke—who would be flooded, how quickly the water would rise and which roads would be wiped out. Bill seems like someone you can count on. Despite the layoffs and the furloughs, if the rain came and the levees broke, Bill and his carefully thought out evacuation plans would save our lives. Finally, Bill shows his last slide: Make sure your family has a disaster plan. I’ve heard this before, but never paid much attention. My wife does enough disaster planning for both of us.

But when Bill’s slide went up, Pete and I glanced at each other. I realized in that moment: Pete does not have a disaster plan. There was a moment of silence that Pete and I shared. It hit me that if there was a disaster, there was a good chance that Pete would be in trouble and I would be fine.

Pete went back to eating his breakfast. After a while, he looked a little pale. I asked him if he was OK. He told me that he was fine, just really full. In my life, I have had a bunch of breakfasts. But this morning, I really got my money’s worth.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.