I have learned something about community. I should say, I have learned what it means to me. Not so much by the definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
: a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood)
: a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.
: a group of nations
This definition does make a very good stab at the reality of its meaning, however, it does leave us feeling a bit isolated and boxed into our individual and collective identities as an outsider would see us. It is not how I came to see it. No, it is a vision of community opposed to the one I observed first hand after Irma crossed my path and touched so many in the state of Florida and beyond. I cannot explain it clearly. I am not one with the ability to tell that tell. I can only share with you what I experienced.
Leading up to the event, Irma’s landfall, the media, especially the likes of the Weather Channel, used a bit of sensationalism as the “cone of uncertainty” changed day by day and hour by hour. They added to the uncertainty a dash of fear for good measure with terms like “where will disaster strike” or “certain devastation awaits.” This commentary certainly spices up the angst among us within the storms uncertain path. The community became a group of people focused on preparation. Checklist’s created. Water, gas, bread and batteries become scarce. Shutters go up. Generators fired up and tested filling the air with a sound that would become all too familiar in the coming days.
In the days… long days, before Hurricane Irma landed on the shores of South Florida, the wild speculation and intense scrutiny was felt as people outside the state checked on us, some out of genuine concern were appreciated, others posting armchair observations on social media were mostly negative and of no help to us. We did our best to calm our friends and families and ignore the others. I explained that when the Governor is telling “everyone to evacuate,” in a sound bite, he is actually saying, listen to your local government and follow their instructions. That is just what we did. People along the coast, in flood zones, surge areas and evacuation zones, both mandatory and suggested, did evacuate, save a few brave hearts. An estimated twenty-five percent of the population evacuated. An unprecedented number and an amazing feat. My family and I were in none of those areas. We prepared and stayed put allowing those in certain danger to get to safety. We did not want to further tax the over burdened supply chain getting them out of harms way.
As the storm began making itself known to us we texted friends in Miami, taking their temperature so to speak. They could tell us what to expect. As the strong winds come, along with the rain, it does so in bands. Short bursts of heavy storms slowly increasing intensity as the storm waltzes up the state. We waited for the power to go out. It was inevitable, even small storms knock out power for a time. We played board games, ate snacks and waited all of Saturday night and into Sunday until 3:59 PM. That was the moment our power went out. Candles and flashlights became the norm and the winds increased, like contractions of an expected birth, the became more intense and closer together. We could hear the winds push through the large Oaks outside our house. Another misunderstanding, when they say the winds are one hundred plus miles an hour that is only in gusts. It is not several hours of consistent wind at that speed. It comes in a rush and drops to a more reasonable number. The highest in my area was one hundred I am told. nothing to laugh about, but our homes, newer homes, are built for this weather. I nor my family ever felt unsafe. However the electricity would not return for days. That would be the most uncomfortable part. The storm itself was not the thing we feared. The days afterword are the unpleasant part and the recovery would be the test of patience for many, including me.
The sun came up on Monday and I awoke with the sun. That is one thing that a lack of electricity does. The sun is your alarm clock and your watch. It sets and you too will set with it. You do not have television to tell you what is going on. You walk out your door and talk to your neighbor. You check the house and yard, you check the rest of the street and you start cleaning up the mess. Irma did take down a fence, but it was a fence I had been staring at for months and thinking, I need to replace that fence. It took out the mail box and cedar post it sat on. The one my wife had asked me to replace several times. It cleaned out dead and heavy branches from Oak trees and palm fronds from palm trees. I like to say, it basically redecorated my yard.
We had no structual damage, no person was harmed. We simply had some yard work to do. Neighbors were helping neighbors. Conversations occurred. The generators came on and those with them offered hot coffee to those without one. Tuesday came and much was the same as the previous day. Still, we only knew what was immediate and important. No Television, no tales of destruction. I only saw what was in my town. We saw everyone helping each other. The news of the day was an update of who needed what kind of help and we did what we could to make it happen. There were no street lights. No traffic lights. No evening lights. We used the old fashion four-way stop rule when driving. I checked on people across the state, using precious cell phone batteries. All I really wanted was gasoline, there was none. I wanted to get out and help. So when I found some on Tuesday night and my power came back on, knowing my family would be taken care of if need be, I drove north to help some that needed more help than we did.
I arrived in Orlando found a hotel with vacancy and went to sleep. In air conditioning. That was heaven. The first since Sunday afternoon. Ninety degree heat and humidity is not good on the mood or character of a person. The next morning I woke at sun up and drove to Merritt Island. There was no power or water. The whole area was out, several cities. This was day three. You could not even find a faucet that ran water. Nobody complained. Everyone said they were fine. The National Guard filled the mall parking lot with pallets of water and folks lined up orderly to collect their allotment. When I asked my staff there if I could bring them anything from Orlando they would not accept the offer. There was always someone worse off than anyone I spoke to, so they would not accept help. I went to a grocery in Orlando on Thursday morning and loaded my car with bread, peanut butter, cans of tuna, orange juice, cranberry juice and ground beef and bags of chips among other things. I placed it on the counter at our business location an hours drive east of Orlando. They asked where I found bread, grabbed bananas and tuna and ate. The juice was a hit. Another person went home and returned with a bar-b-que and made hamburgers for everyone. Nobody mentioned I forgot condiments. They were thankful for what they had in front of them. Each told of someone who needed help and we did what we could for them. Stories were exchanged, we laughed at some, got quiet during others and even though they themselves were all in need themselves, nobody spoke of self. They only spoke of others and offered what help could be done for them.
This expression of service to others was pretty much what I came across everywhere, as I drove across the state. Over the next several days, I continued to Daytona, Orlando, Miami, The Palm Beaches, Lakeland, Winter Haven, Tampa and St Petersburg. People were helping people. Everyone was thoughtful of others. Nobody spoke of politics, racial relations, idiology differences, relious differences. They helped each other without thought of any of that. There was no justification or credential required of anyone in need. I started to wish we could stay that way, without power, television news, commentary, politician grandstanding. I did not see a televison for over ten days. I did not miss it. When I finally did, I turned it off. It seemed only to want to talk about what was wrong with everyone, everywhere around the world and the within the country. It spoke of a divided country, distrust of everyone and everything. The television never seems to want to listen. It only seems to help stir the pot. Point out differences. The community I witnessed was a community with a purpose. Focused on the welfair of others. People helping people. It was community without focus on any city, town, or neighborhood and definitely without thought to religion, race, ect. Community is blind to such things without intervention of outside thought. It was wonderful in the face of some much preceding angst.
Perhaps that is why this all occured. To remind us all of what is important. I am only sorry it won’t last. As the power came back on, people returned to ther homes. They turned on thier Televisions and were reminded that there was an outside world that continued to argue with each other without us. I will continue to reach out and help as I can. But as our lives here in Florida get back to normal I fear we will loose this new normal I fell in like with. The one where everyone just got along, spoke to each other and most importanty listened. Without thought of what side of the divide they were from. I was reading a Marilynne Robinson essay they other day, one of the many in witch speaks in defense of Calvinism. In it she speaks of Old Testament God and how it is always portrayed as harsh in treatment of the people. Yet she points out that it actually directs much liberalism and Deuteronomy 15: 7-11 is quoted as a piece of the defense. I thought it drove home my thoughts of the lesson I learned during the Old Testament Storm Irma,
“7 If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; 8 but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. 9 Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin in you. 10 You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. 11 For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’
…and I say, Amen