A Little Understanding
I am watching the TV to see the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, as everyone else is. It has been four days. The fatality count in the U.S. alone has climbed to ninety-two. Property damage from this storm is estimated to make it the second most expensive disaster in U.S. People are waiting in long lines for gas, water, and food. Millions of people are without basic services like running water, heat, and electricity. Cities, communities, homes, and businesses have been destroyed. The New York City subway system flooded during the hurricane and has yet to be restored to full service. Sixty million gallons of water need to be pumped from tunnels before the subway trains can run. Yesterday people drove in gridlocked traffic jams to make it to the office. Countless others waited three hours for buses or walked into the city. Others waited all day for gasoline for cars and generators. There is plenty of gas in supply, but you need electricity at depots and stations before the stations can sell gasoline. Power is in the process of being restored, but there are still many areas that need more work before power can be restored.
This morning, amidst the barrage of mean-spirited campaign ads that have overtaken my TV, I heard a report that people were starting to lose their tempers. Angry people yelled, Where is our Red Cross truck? We’re going to die. We’re gonna freeze. We got ninety-year-old people. It’s cold. Our children are homeless. I need gas. All day no gas. What am I gonna do? The Red Cross arrived on Staten Island with dry ice and ready-to-eat meals yesterday. A woman said she thought they’d have had a blanket or something. Her family needs clothes. One man described the experience as “post-apocalyptic.” Another man predicted that looting would increase as people had time to plan their own form of “disaster recovery.”
It is awful to imagine what it was like to spend a night in your home while nature did its best to bring that home down to the ground. I do not know what it is like to have my home flooded by water. However, many years ago my grandfather’s sister was caught in a flood during the middle of the night. She and her husband passed their baby boy to the brother who came to warn them of the approaching flood waters, but they paused to dress before fleeing and were caught by the waters. They climbed onto furniture in their bedroom. The water rose to their necks. The back of their new home broke off from the main structure and washed away. Their farm animals died in the flood. As the long cold night wore on, these dead animals floated in and out of the house. My great aunt Bertha never was the same again. She died shortly after the flood. Her family members said that surviving the flood broke her.
As we listen to the voices of people whose tempers are growing short it is easy to wonder why people think we should be on their blocks with electricity, food, blankets, shelter, and gas within a matter of days. They are homeless, tired, cold, hungry, and afraid. Some of these people are going to vote next week for a candidate who has said that he favors less federal government. He thinks the states should bear more responsibility for handling a crisis of this kind. There are people who want to privatize what now are basic services provided by the government to the public. If an entire state can be struck by a weather emergency and that state must act on its own to respond to the damage, who will answer the call of the people whose lives have been crushed by disaster? When schools are operated by charter, then they may no longer be operated in public buildings that can serve as shelters for the homeless. When there is no federal mandate to provide disaster relief, then any response will require coordination and budgetary authority. A state that helps another will have to justify that expenditure to its constituents. Those constituents may not want to fund relief for others with their tax dollars.
Across America there are people who have been unemployed or underemployed or financially insecure for several years. They wonder why no help has reached them either. They may apply for unemployment compensation that runs out after awhile, stand in line at food pantries, or ask for relief on underwater mortgages in court. There are people who need help to pay for prescriptions or medical care. There are people who do not face looting tonight, but crime in their neighborhoods is rampant. Instead of having their babies crushed by falling trees or pulled from their arms by flood waters, their children are shot while they play in their neighborhoods, in their yards, on their porches, and in their homes.
As angry voices rise in the wake of disaster it is easy to become angry in response. The anger on both sides is a response to fear. We need to offer others reassurance. We may not be there to help you as soon as you would like or with the things you most want to receive, but we are here and we are coming. It may also be time for us to reflect on whether this is a nation that will heed the calls from other citizens or whether we will follow a course that breaks down the ties that bind us. Even if you believe that the problem with America is that there are too many people who depend on others to bail them out, you should keep in mind that disaster can befall anyone.
The biggest banks in the world have failed. Major corporations have failed. Small businesses have failed. Levees have failed. Disaster plans have failed. Relief organizations have failed. All of us are vulnerable to bad weather and disease. Our obligations to each other are both a burden and a buoy at times. As tempers rise we need to keep reaching out with understanding. All of us need understanding at some point in our lives. It is the one form of aid that we can offer that costs nothing and requires us to cut no red tape. When it feels like others’ suffering has become a threat to your well being keep on offering understanding and support. When your suffering seems more than you can handle, do not break. Talk about it. There are people out here that want to help you.