We are at our best in disaster relief

Nature keeps sending disasters. People keep sending relief.

We’re still learning the extent of the damage Hurricane Irma did to the homes, neighborhoods, communities and fundamentally the people of the state of Florida from the Keys to Jacksonville in the north, with access to some areas cut off for days, and therefore, delivery routes of relief. Irma devastated Barbuda.

Now, Hurricane Maria threatens destruction in Puerto Rico.

The Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 175 mph (281 kph) will smash into the Virgin Islands Tuesday night. It has already obliterated parts of Dominica and killed at least one person in Guadeloupe.

 

Puerto Rico will get hit hard Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center said, and the storm could be catastrophic…

 

Puerto Rico sheltered many of the evacuees who fled from other Caribbean Islands during Hurricane Irma earlier this month. Now those evacuees and native Puerto Ricans are bracing for devastation.

 

“This is an event that will be damaging to the infrastructure, that will be catastrophic,” (Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo) Rosselló said. “Our only focus right now should be to make sure we save lives.”

That has been the focus for weeks now of people across the United States. When Hurricane Harvey was still beating down on Houston, whatever had been dividing Americans politically or culturally dissolved or got sidelined by the force of nature and the ‘force more powerful‘ than destruction, love and charity impulsively and instinctively passing from person to person.

Numbers of people beyond counting have been showing up in this ‘army of compassion’ descending on sites of destruction even while they’re still being battered. Especially then, which shows the real magnanimity of regular Americans. Houston’s ‘Mattress Mack‘ is emblematic of this spirit of unity and generosity, and the humility that, to a person, seems to define the motivating impulse driving people from their comfort zones to the place they’d rather be in an emergency: with the people under siege. They have offered what they have to those who need anything.

Magdalena Marez, 27, and her fiancé Zachary Gasser, moved into their apartment a few months ago. They went furniture shopping at a handful of Houston-area stores, but they’d never stepped foot into a Gallery Furniture store until early Tuesday morning. They wandered in, soaking wet, just after evacuating from their apartment.

 

Floodwaters were ankle deep, and they struggled to make the drive.

 

When they arrived at the showroom volunteers handed them dry clothes, toothbrushes, soap, shoes — and a mattress still covered in plastic. Marez is moved by McIngvale’s generosity.

 

“We never stepped foot in (one of his stores) and now I’m just like, wow, I mean, they opened up the doors. Like nothing. He didn’t even second guess it,” she says. “He was just like, ‘Let me help you.'”

 

McIngvale is also paying for portable showers so evacuees can have their first hot shower in days.

 

Marchione, the employee, says his boss has opened the store to evacuees and is providing meals because it’s his way of giving back to a community that has brought him success over the past 36 years.

 

“This is Houston,” Marchione adds. “That’s how Houston rolls.”

Jim McIngvale was my guest on radio, because he answered my call with the generosity he shows to all calls on his time and attention. Media had descended on ‘Mattress Mack’, he agreed to brief exchanges with them while working, mainly to put the word out that all help for evacuees was needed and welcomed. He told me that a reporter for some big media outlet asked why he was doing all this work in his big company store, housing and feeding so many people. He said “because I have to”, but the reporter replied “no you don’t”. He quickly corrected “yes I do”. It’s what he knows, it’s what he lives.

“I was raised as a Catholic,” he told the local KENS5 news in Houston. “I continued my Catholic faith throughout my life, trying to do the right thing and hopefully, you do the right thing and help people along the way.”

His Gallery Furniture business is still helping, in the cleanup phase and beyond.

The Miami Herald editors published a fervent wish for such charitable goodwill for Floridians before Irma hit: “Be kind, send help, rebuild“.

 

Nerves are frayed, to say the very least. But South Floridians have always risen to the occasion during difficult times, extending a generous helping hand, with no hesitation, with no expectations of reciprocation.

It is one of the Editorial Board’s most fervent wishes — but only one — that in the pre-disaster hunt for plywood, water, gas, and hotel rooms, we remain civil, empathetic. Remember Connect Miami? April’s successful community-wide initiative to encourage residents to engage with people unlike them? To hear their stories? To find commonality? Irma will be put this initiative on steroids.

People from everywhere have been quick to step up, show up and reach out, not even knowing they’re part of a national rapid response team. They didn’t ask what identity group the afflicted belonged to, nor what political party,nor how they voted in the last election. The only questions they asked and are asking are ‘What do you need?‘ and ‘How can I help?

 

I’ve had several guests on radio these past two weeks somehow involved in disaster relief and recovery, charitable organizations and government aid, professionals, spiritual directors, people trying to help people and connect with the best ways to get things done.

Some of them said something I’ve been thinking, hoping, saying on my show, that we should be able to keep this going. See ‘the other’ as a person to engage, to serve, to share a vulnerable moment with and find ways that encounter can benefit both. And build or rebuild the nation that’s made up of people, known to be fiercely independent, but who are remembering how interdependent we truly are.

The upside of a crisis

It took a natural disaster to do what no movement could, in a few days.

Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast of Texas and hit Houston particularly hard over the past several days, claiming lives and destroying homes and properties beyond counting at this point. Because at this point, it’s not over.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Administrator Brock Long said. “Texas has never seen an event like this.”

That’s what my guests on radio said Monday, after three days of Harvey’s battering set new records with torrential downpours measured in feet, not inches and caused catastrophic, life-threatening flooding ‘of biblical proportions’ according to ongoing accounts and projections for the near and even long term future.

Long said earlier that FEMA will likely be in Texas for years, and that Harvey will require one of the largest recovery housing efforts the nation has ever seen.

 

Harvey will likely surpass 2008’s Hurricane Ike and 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison, two of the most destructive storms to hit the Gulf Coast in recent memory, he said. Millions of people from Corpus Christi to New Orleans were under flood watches and warnings Monday as Harvey’s storm bands repeatedly pummeled the same areas.

 

“The word catastrophic does not appropriately describe what we’re facing,” said US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. “We just don’t know when it’s going to end.”

 

Early Monday, Harvey was barely clinging to tropical storm status, but the danger is far from over. The storm is forecast to head southeast toward the Matagorda Bay and Gulf of Mexico, where it will pick up additional moisture before sliding back over Galveston and Houston, cities it has already hammered…

 

Even when the rain is gone, dangers will persist, said National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, because “the flooding will be very slow to recede.”

 

The Pentagon is also identifying resources, including trucks, aircraft and troops, that can be dispatched for hurricane relief if the request comes, defense officials said, and Gov. Greg Abbott has activated the entire Texas National Guard, roughly 12,000 Guardsmen, he said Monday.

Throughout Tuesday, the crisis grew. The slow moving storm had shattered records for rainfall and heights of floodwaters, and sheer numbers of desperate citizens in need of relief. And that was before Hurricane Harvey was expected to swing back for a second landfall on the same battered Texas region by Wednesday.

People are battered along with the land. They have crisis fatigue, they’re frightened and have lost personal property, possibly everything they had, have stood on roofs or tops of cars or waded through waist high water with all sorts of hazards underneath, just to survive. Life has taken on new meaning. And so has the sense of what is important.

This comes when the country has crisis fatigue. We’ve had months of politically charged partisan and ideological battles not only without common sense or common ground, but with people focused distinctly on not ceding ground to political or ideological opponents. It has been bitter, divisive, toxic and noxious.

In the first few days of a natural disaster that threatens more harm to people in its path, Americans of all sorts have raced from their homes and towns to help fellow Americans suffering from the wrath not of political, social or cultural storms of hatred or discrimination or intolerance but of the sheer force of a raging storm of nature. The ‘Us’ grew to all people in harm’s way, and the ‘Other’ was the relentless invading Hurricane Harvey.

With news crews planted and traversing the storm ravaged areas to update reporting on latest damage estimates and newest surge of floodwater and worst areas hit by relentless rain, horrified viewers couldn’t miss the battalions of relief workers also pouring in, and average citizens racing private boats and trucks to the scene to rescue people and deliver supplies and bring relief.

In a flash one particular moment, I remembered a comment from my sons’ childhood when Fred Rogers of ‘Mister Rogers Neighborhood‘ fame told an interviewer this:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

That has been a saving grace in these scary days, the countless people helping countless people, without a clue to their identities or politics, ethnicity or religion.

This is the way it should be. And the way it is. Read that, all of it. And it’s only a glimpse of a much larger presence of helpers.

There’s the ‘Cajun Navy‘, among so many other relief workers.

The Cajun Navy is part of an armada of private boats that have descended on the Houston area after authorities asked for help from those who could potentially navigate the treacherous floodwaters across a massive swath of southeast Texas in search of residents. Many boaters from east Texas and west Louisiana streamed to the outskirts of the disaster until they could drive no more, switching over to boats to go door to door seeking out the stranded.

 

Painful and haunting memories of Hurricane Katrina run deep in what’s informally known as the “Cajun corridor,” between Texas and Louisiana. During Katrina, hundreds of Texans did just what Bloodsworth did, crossed the border and even the Sabine River to help rescue teams in New Orleans…

 

“I vividly remember that many Texans came to Louisiana’s aid, which was incredible to me,” said Taylor Aucoin, who is in Baton Rouge working with an app, called Zello, that allows her and her husband to radio in rescue requests to volunteers on the ground in Texas. “I can’t really describe the heartbreak that I feel now for Texans. It’s a very small thing we can do from here to kind of repay the favor for the help we received last year and countless other times.”

The headline of that news story said they’re ‘paying it forward’.

“It’s just what we do for each other.”

Said one member of the Cajun Navy.

“Just the way we were brought up,” he said. “You help your neighbor.”

And keep the effort going.

Indonesia’s deadly landslide

How much of the world is aware this happened?

With so much else going on everywhere, in the US and globally, and so many news stories to get to and post here, all piling up, I came across this. And want to point it out.

A landslide destroyed a remote village in Indonesia, killing at least 17 people, an official said on Saturday, as rescuers used their bare hands and sticks to search through the mud for scores of missing in the absence of heavy-lifting equipment.

This is yet another story of people out of sight and mind, suffering terribly, with other people rushing forward to rescue and help as many and as much as they can, and I want to take a moment to direct attention to it and ask for prayers for all the people in dire need of them, and aid and support of any relief organizations you trust and regularly support. Or have been thinking of supporting. Because the need is great.

Hundreds have been evacuated from around Jemblung village in the Banjarnegara regency of central Java, about 280 miles from the capital, Jakarta, where media pictures showed a flood of orange mud and water cascading down a wooded mountainside after Friday’s disaster.

Mudslides are common in Indonesia during the monsoon season, which usually runs from October until April.

Think about that. The monsoon season lasts for half the year. That means living on the edge of danger or extinction half of your yearly life. And in a remote place to begin with, so largely cut off from swift access to emergency help.

Large swathes of forest land, power lines and houses were buried. Hampering the rescue effort was a lack of a telephone signal and earth-moving equipment in the isolated, rural area.

“There was a roaring sound like thunder,” Imam, who lives in a neighboring village, told television.

Television. The lack of any identifying network or station or anything professional news reporting usually requires shows the urgency and swiftness of this rudimentary report. Though it is published on a network news site, its source was a small local Indonesian outlet. Thankfully, they got this out. The people there are fending for themselves. They’re living in this remote place, completely off our radar, when suddenly their lives were thrown into panic with the “roaring sound like thunder”. Knowing now what came next, one shudders to think of experiencing this.

“Then I saw trees were flying and then the landslides. People here also panicked and fled.”

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, said 17 people had been killed, 15 rescued, 91 were missing and 423 people from the surrounding areas had been taken to temporary shelters. He said there was a history of similar disasters in the area.

Of all the disasters and crises in the world right now, this may not rise to the level of awareness even NBC gave it in this brief account. But it’s a community of  individuals and families and local merchants, businesses, services, people, so very far away from most of us, who were visited with disaster and need help.

I can’t sign on to Facebook these days without seeing accounts of crises, large scale and personal, people either in danger or in the aftermath of loss, and they’re reaching out for help.

For those of you who leap to such occasions to pray, please do for these Indonesians along with all others in need. For anyone who will give in this season of faith, hope and charity, please give to relief organizations.

And for everyone, let’s try to live by the Golden Rule, at the very least. My parents often reminded me of its fundamental role at the center of how they were raised. Do for others what you would hope they would do for you.

Especially when most of the world doesn’t even know you’re there, and in dire need.

NY marathon run for relief

This happened several days ago, but it got mostly overlooked for all the bad, shocking and salacious news breaking over that time. Which makes it all the more important to highlight. It’s like a flash mob of charity, help and goodwill.

The New York Marathon is a big deal every year. Unfortunately, this year it was scheduled on a date right after the area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. So they had to cancel this major event. From there, it took on a life of its own.

I love this story.

On Friday evening, with slightly more than 36 hours to go before the 2012 ING New York City Marathon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg canceled the annual event, amid criticisms the runners would be siphoning off valuable resources needed in the city’s recovery from Superstorm Sandy. But the decision hardly discouraged a group of nearly 1,300 runners from boarding the Staten Island Ferry toward the starting line. Far from anticipating a grueling 26.2-mile run, however, these would-be racers ran their own marathon, carrying garbage bags and backpacks full of donated supplies ranging from blankets to Home Depot gift cards that they delivered to the destroyed homes of Staten Island residents.

“I’ve run the marathon three times, and there was an odd familiarity getting on the Staten Island Ferry this morning with a group of runners for a completely different reason,” says runner and New Yorker Jon Bennion. “It was fascinating, the anxiety and jitters were replaced by an overwhelming sense of community.”

This is great.

The group, organized over Facebook by Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports-medicine physician at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery, met early Sunday morning and divided into groups to run the supplies to the most severely damaged neighborhoods on the island. Metzl, who carried a backpack filled with batteries, says he had expected about 300 runners, but was surprised by the overwhelming number of volunteers who showed up.

“It is one of the most compelling things I’ve ever seen in my life,” Metzl says. “Part of the myth of this whole thing was that runners were callous to the suffering and just wanted to run their marathon. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

On a bright, sunny day with cool temperatures perfect for racing, the runners disembarked from the ferry with a kickoff cheer, but it didn’t take long before the route transformed into a somber reminder of why city councilmen and New Yorkers suffering power outages and flood damage vehemently argued the marathon should not continue.

“All of a sudden, we turned a corner and everyone was cleaning out their basements. Sidewalks were gone, replaced by sinkholes,” says Emily Snyder, an avid runner who discovered the New York Runners in Support of Staten Island group online. “People were cleaning out all their stuff by the handful. The gas lines are astronomically long. It’s shocking.”

They ran miles of routes to deliver goods and clear out homes that smelled of rotting books and furniture.

“We have a runner from England and a runner from Scotland who came to New York to run their first marathon and found out about this over Twitter. They’ve never even heard of Staten Island, and for them to come out here and spend the day cleaning this man’s home is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

This year’s race would have marked Metzl’s 30th marathon, but he says the cancellation was unsurprising given the wreckage. “It wasn’t even a question to come here,” he says. “This is the right thing to do. It’s more gratifying than any run I have ever done.”

Because it was for a cause far greater than the self, and it revealed the true excellence of the runners. It’s the humanity that transcends any event, even one caused by a force of nature, that’s the real story behind the story.

But even after these runners turned in what may have been their personal best, and returned to their homes around the world, the reality stays bleak in the New York area, in Staten Island and the Rockaways and areas of New Jersey, it’s still raw and devastating and still trying human endurance.

CBS’s 60 Minutes did a report over the weekend on the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, talking with ‘ordinary folks’ from the Rockaways about their survival and cleanup efforts, and to a person, they seemed like heroes.

Scott Pelley: Who lives here? What kind of neighborhood is it?

Susan Brady: This is three F’s. Family, friends, and faith. Everybody cares about each other…

Belle Harbor is down there below Manhattan, in Queens on a strip of sand called the Rockaway Peninsula. The Atlantic is to the south. Jamaica Bay, to the north, separates what they call the Rockaways from the island of Manhattan. After 1900, it was a beach resort. But over the years it settled into what were neat rows of middle class homes. The streets are piled high with sand now. The main drag has been knocked out of business. But a neighborhood is made of people and here they take care of their own.

During the storm, Mike McDonnell sheltered in a house with his neighbors when the tidal surge began filling the street.

Mike McDonnell: The windows blew in. You’ll hear, pop, pop, pop, pop. And all the water came rushing in. It came right up the stairwell. I said, “I’m going to the front of the house to see how much tide is still gonna rise.” At that moment, a gas line blew. And there were, there were embers of flames pouring over the house. The equal to that of a snow globe. If you shake a snow globe and you see all the white coming down. But this was raining fire.

When the house burst into flame, McDonnell wanted to lead everyone through the tide to a house across the street. He’s not the kind who gives up easily. He’s had 60 surgeries for skin cancer. McDonnell found that he didn’t have a rope for the rescue, so he made one.

Scott Pelley: Extension cords and twine and lamp cords. So the rope led from where to where?

Mike McDonnell: The rope here went from the banister over to the tree here.

Right there, where it’s tied to the tree, is how high the water was. McDonnell showed us how a neighbor on a surfboard tied the other end across the street. McDonnell used this lifeline as he carried six people, one at a time.

Mike McDonnell: I tell you, first of all, we’re being chased by fire. And then the other alternative is to jump into raging water that looked like tsunami waters.

Scott Pelley: Not good options.

Mike McDonnell: This whole thing was fueled by nothing more than hope and trust.

Scott Pelley: Why was this your job?

Mike McDonnell: Because I promised them that nothing would happen to them. There’s something great about this community. Everyone in this community, they’re all first responders. They’re firemen. They’re police officers. Rockaway has a great fabric running through it, through everybody here, where they don’t mind putting their lives on the line, if there’s a possibility to save another.

This is what’s going on right now, and will for some time, while politics and scandal continue to dominate headlines. It’s a reminder that news stories – all news stories – are about people. And choices.