“I’m very grateful for them helping us get out of dodge,” Crystal Russell, of Savannah told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Because of me being in my wheelchair, I can’t use my legs, so they are getting me to a new bus that’s better for my knees.”
The irony was not lost on me as Tropical Storm Irma crossed from Florida into Georgia in the wee morning hours of Sept. 11. Thankfully, in part due to pre-planning and early emergency declarations and evacuations, residents and visitors of Florida and Georgia were largely spared from serious injury and death.
With counts still climbing on fatalities associated with the storm, primarily in the Caribbean when Irma was still a Category 5 Hurricane, early public notification and evacuation clearly saved lives across the southeast. Work and school closures and mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders also caused millions to take precautions, prepare their homes and businesses for the coming storms and shelter in place until the worst had passed.
Property damage in some areas, such as the Florida Keys is massive, but both Florida and Georgia in many ways dodged a bullet. Downed trees and fallen power lines can be corrected and cleared away. This takes time, but can be easily overcome. Across Georgia as home and business owners clear away debris and the sun came from behind days of clouds and grey, there was another real reason to smile.
As we often see in America, time and again, in times of our worst distress, our best behavior emerges. Much like that earlier 9/11 and the tragedies in New York City, Washington, D.C. and the farmland of Pennsylvania, neighbors helped neighbors — and even more impressive, strangers assisted strangers facing danger or injury.
While our first responders and government leaders deserve a hardy and long round of applause, they were supplemented by thousands of regular folks and volunteers, whose own lives may have been torn asunder, but who also immediately rolled up their sleeves and began the hard work of helping others, often while the storm was in mid-torrent.
In Savannah, a purely volunteer forced helped to move and transfer nearly 3,000 local residents with serious mobility impairments and unable to leave or evacuate their own homes. And a good thing too, as by the mid day on Sept. 11, Savannah’s famed River Street and much of downtown Savannah had become a river unto its own due to the storm surge.
On St. Simons Island, with the causeway and multiple bridges closed, blocking exit and entry to the island, the owners and longtime restauranteurs of Brogen’s North, Tramici and Southern Soul Barbeque both offered free food to hundreds stuck on the island or with only long spoiled and thawed food remaining in their refrigerators and freezers during the sustained power outage.
Recovery is only beginning, as the sound of chainsaws fills the air and bucket trucks adorn most every other neighborhood street, but this too shall soon pass. What we should try and hang on to is this spirit of Samaritan behavior and assistance for our neighbors and strangers.
And though our federal, state and local government officials and school systems have largely earned a grade of A+ for the early warnings, planning, disaster and emergency declarations and evacuations, it should not require a natural or man-made disaster or act of terrorism to bring us all together. Despite our real and occasional differences of politics and opinion, we remain people of one nation, under God and our indivisible status should daily be more self-evident.
Nearly 80 percent of the aid delivered on the ground post-Hurricanes Irma and Harvey has come from private, faith-based organization and entities like the Salvation Army, Red Cross and local area churches. That too is as it should be. Though billions will be committed to rebuilding infrastructure and providing low and no-interest recovery loans...our federal government should not be responsible for rebuilding nor insuring every vulnerable shoreline community or structure. And as evidenced by Irma, high winds and related damage are far from limited to beach and lakefront properties.
As some of you are still awaiting restoration of power, or a secure roof back overhead of you and your family, our thoughts and prayers are with you, as is the near surety that help is on the way. God bless and keep you and yours safe, dry and fed. And as you are checking on neighbors, shut-ins and the fragile in your community, don’t be a stranger, and don’t wait until the next near disaster to stop back by.
Bill Crane is a senior communications strategist who began his career in broadcasting and has worked at the state capitol and in Washington in both political parties. Contact him