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.