Thursday, November 1, 2012

The power of helping

Hurricane Sandy, 2012 (1)
New Hampshire was spared the worst of the damage from the recent hurricane. Most people didn't lose power, and of those who did, most had it restored within a few hours. The news this morning reported that the last of the power outages will be restored by tomorrow morning at the latest. There were no deaths that I'm aware of, and there was no rioting or looting. Thanks to All Divine for us getting the luck of the draw for this particular storm.

The people in New Jersey and NYC weren't so lucky. Not only was there massive flooding, there were fires in NYC that left 300 families without homes. There are states of emergency declared all over the place to the south of us, and power is still out to thousands of people. People in NYC have been told some of them might not get power back for another ten days.

I have many former seminary classmates and minister friends who are helping those who were left homeless from this storm. I agree wholeheartedly with helping out. It's terrible to think that might be us.

I have to admit, though, that I find myself wondering why some of (or perhaps most of) these people didn't help themselves to begin with. I know some of my readers may see that as a callous statement, but I need it to be said. I need to discuss this, and I invite comments.

The Battery tunnel (2)
Warnings about the hurricane began over a week before it actually reached our shores. FEMA and other agencies were asking people to stock up on food and water, to have an emergency bag packed, and to be ready to evacuate if you were in a flood prone area. In many places, evacuation orders came hours before Sandy's landfall, and shelters were set up well well in advance. Various pet agencies offered to provide free shelter for the pets of those who had to go to emergency stations, so that even the smallest and most innocent residents would have somewhere safe and relatively dry to be during the storm.

We're not in a flood plain. We're not in a place that's subject to storm surge, being well inland. We don't even get really bad Nor'easters, here. Still, we heeded all the warnings. We bought extra food that was easy to prepare, picked up an extra cylinder of propane for the camp stove and the barbecue grill, fueled up the cars, and made sure there was gas for the generator. We didn't have to pack emergency bags because we always have those ready to go, just in case, but we certainly double checked them to make sure everything needed was still there. We filled up some plastic jugs with water and left them in the bathtub, just in case drinking water was shut off or contaminated in some way.

None of this cost us very much. Food was stuff we would have gotten anyway. Much of it was cheap (eggs and bread, for instance). The propane and fuel were things we'd planned to get anyhow. The water jugs just happened to be on hand, though if they hadn't, I would have used milk jugs or whatever was around.

I find myself asking... why did people get wakened at 2am in NYC to find water on their second floors, and were totally unprepared? The entirety of NYC is a flood plain. Evacuation orders had been given. People were warned. There was ample time for preparation. How could they be in a position that they were required to be evacuated by emergency boats, with nothing more than their night clothing? How could this happen, when all that time and money had been spent to warn them?

I feel bad for those who lost their homes. It was not their fault that storm surges ripped apart the buildings they lived in. The storm was not something they could prevent from happening. Judging by the size of most of the storm surge, even very high breakwaters would not have prevented most of the flooding. Those who lost their homes to fire, too, could not have known that was going to happen.

Avenue C, NYC (3)
Yet every single one of those people should have had a grocery bag or suitcase or backpack with a couple of changes of clothes and a handful of granola bars by their bed. Every single one of them was within the path of the storm that was so clearly defined and illustrated on NOAA and Wunderground. There was no surprise at the storm itself, or the danger it posed. This was not an event that sprung up in the small hours of the night without warning or advanced notice.

I am finding myself wondering, how did we get to a place where we can (as a society) completely ignore warnings and emergency statements? How did we reach a mindset that allows us to blank out the dire, long-range forecasts and evacuation requests? How did we breed a group of people who simply sat there passively while their lives washed away in Sandy?

There's a quote that I feel we need to focus on, right now:
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." -- attributed to Confucius
People (and I mean this in a very general, country-wide way, rather than specifically any group of people) today seem to want the fish. They don't want to do the work to catch the fish. They don't want to get up early, pack up the gear, make sure the lines are not tangled, load the tackle box, dig worms, make their way out to the early morning waters, bait their hooks, wait patiently while the fish bite, then come home and clean those fish, prepare them, cook them, and serve them up. They want pre-cooked fish in plastic bags to put in the microwave.

It disturbs me. It interrupts my prayers. How can I pray for someone who didn't even help themselves in a well-marked dangerous situation? The answer is that I pray for them to be well and to learn from their mistakes.

However, I also find myself praying that our country, as a whole, can learn to fish together. The handouts were never meant to be for everyone. They were designed for a small group of people who were in dire straights not of their own design. They were intended to give people room to breathe while they got back on their feet after losing a job, sustaining a life-threatening injury, or a natural disaster like Sandy.

There are people in Cuba and Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas who were all affected by Sandy's wrath. I'm not sure how many people have seen images of the destruction there. Yet we don't see the same kind of response there. I realize they don't have our kind of infrastructure for helping their citizenry, but I also see that they expect the people to help themselves.

Yes, disasters happen, and it sucks. That's part of life, unfortunately. You get hurt, you get up, you dust yourself off, and you get on with the business of living. I've lived through things that left me homeless, with all of my "things" (photographs, most of my clothing, books, keepsakes, ID, etc.) destroyed or missing. I found ways to deal, pulled my head out of the sand, and moved on. It wasn't easy, and yes I pissed and moaned during part of it. I was scared, too. I was emotionally hurt, knowing that some of the "things" I loved were gone forever. All the baby pictures of my daughter. All my awards from school. My favorite books. My favorite cookware! Gone. I cried.

But then I picked up my emergency bag and I got moving. I helped others, and I helped myself. So now I find myself in the interesting position of wondering whether I'm somehow emotionally crippled because I am having less sympathy for the people in shelters than I ought to. I did it, and frankly I'm not great at it, so others ought to be able to do it, too.

I'm not asking people to be joyful about disasters, natural or otherwise. They're horrible things, and those affected deserve our help and our prayers. There's a great power in helping others, because it also helps us sustain ourselves. I suppose what I'm asking is that, when we help (because inevitably we will; it's in our nature), we do so in the manner of, "teaching someone to fish," rather than just handing out MREs (or even prayers).

Let's take the time to arm our citizenry with knowledge. I know that's contrary to the current political mess (on both sides of this damned campaign), but it's what NEEDS to be done. Let's make "common sense" common again! Let's work together to show people how to weather a storm, whether it's emotional, physical, or natural. I know that I, for  one, would be on board with that type of plan for our country. Let's stop holding out our hands for things, and start holding our hands out to others to help, help in a useful manner.


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1) Image by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / Wikimedia Commons
2) Image by MTA of NYC / Wikimedia Commons
3) Image by David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons
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