The News Cycle May Be Short, but the Recovery is Long
Note: The names in this narrative have been changed to protect their identities.
For nearly twenty years I have been at The Weather Channel, reporting on every major weather event in our recent history: Katrina, Sandy, Floyd, Charley, Frances, Ike, the 2011 Super Outbreak, and most recently Hurricanes Florence and Michael.
In TV weather, there is always something new to talk about and we are always looking ahead. That is the definition of forecasting after all, and once a storm falls off our literal radar, it has a tendency to fall out of our immediate awareness too. We revisit it from time to time, but usually from a scientific point of view. As meteorologists move ahead to the next crisis, we tend to pay less attention to the human hardship and suffering caused by the previous storm.
Recently I decided that, at least for me, that needed to change.
I went to the web site of Samaritan’s Purse, a faith-based organization dedicated to recovery and rebuilding after natural disasters, and volunteered to spend a week helping clean up some of Hurricane Michael’s damage in southern Georgia, just three-and-a-half hours from my home.
Michael had been just under Category Five intensity when it made landfall in the Florida panhandle October 10. It was so powerful that even after traveling 160 miles inland, the hurricane downed thousands of trees and caused widespread power outages and injuries.
When I arrived in Albany, Georgia a little less than three weeks later, I witnessed entire neighborhoods with trees on homes, blue tarps on roofs, and rows of debris piles waiting to be removed by crews from the Army Corps of Engineers. I was amazed at how much work had already been done, but also at how much more there was left to do.
After a safety orientation with a Samaritan’s Purse representative, I met up with one of several teams in the area working through a list of 1800 locations that needed restoration. We gathered at the home of Donny and Natalie, a couple who had several trees down in their yard, some with large branches hanging precariously above their roof and threatening to fall at any time. About half of our team of 15 men and women went to work with chain saws and ropes and heavy equipment, while the others got busy gathering up smaller branches and dragging them to the widening debris piles by the street. After about an hour I took a water break and walked over to the homeowners watching us work. I asked them, “Were you home when the storm hit?”
That opened a floodgate of conversation. They told me of the deafening and otherworldly noise the hurricane had made, sounding, as Donny related, “like two freight trains colliding over and over again.” They talked of how they feared for their lives as they and their son huddled in a single downstairs room for hours on that sleepless night, wondering if the wind would ever stop howling. The couple wanted to talk about that night. They seemed to need to talk about it. And my guess is that they will need to talk about it for a long time to come. That’s why Samaritan’s Purse, in addition to providing relief workers, also sponsors chaplains who spend time with each homeowner, recognizing that storms often damage more than just property, and sometimes the invisible emotional and spiritual wounds are the worst.
Our team also worked at the home of Beverly, a 70-ish woman who lives alone and had endured a gigantic tree crashing down onto a large storage building behind her house where she kept old furniture and keepsakes. It took a couple of hours to cut the tree into manageable logs that our Bobcat skid steer loader could easily haul to the curb. When we finally had the tree out of the way and the building’s demolished metal roof peeled off, we saw that most of the contents were water damaged. I watched as Beverly methodically went through the ruined photographs and souvenirs of her past. Finally putting them aside, she remarked, “It’s just stuff,” but I knew she would have to return to her painful task once we were gone.
A couple of our crew members asked Beverly if she wanted to keep any of the damaged furniture. At first she said “no,” but then added hesitantly, “Well, my grandfather made that old chifferobe in 1910 with his own hands. Do you think it could be salvaged?”
Immediately some of the guys went into action, cleaning it up and searching for all the wooden pieces that had been knocked off but could still be glued back together. If Beverly wanted to keep her grandfather’s chifferobe, they were determined she would have it intact.
My crew worked at two to three homes per day, slowly whittling away at the long list of work orders that will keep Samaritan’s Purse in the south Georgia area until at least mid-December. We sweated in the abnormally warm late-October sun; we worked in a torrential downpour that soaked us to the skin. We got dirty, we were bitten by bugs, we contracted poison ivy and nursed minor scrapes. And we loved every minute of it. Working in the knowledge that each person we met mattered and that our actions made a difference, we tried to leave each property cleaner than it had been before the hurricane hit. And at the conclusion of every job we gathered in a circle with the homeowners, prayed for them and told them what a privilege it was to meet them and to have a small part in helping to bring some restoration to their lives.
And we meant it.
I’m not Mr. Handyman. I’m not that good with a chain saw. I can’t lift a lot of weight and I’m allergic to dust and mold and pollen. But I found it doesn’t take super human strength or know-how to help others, and there is no doubt in my mind that I will volunteer for a storm relief crew again, and probably sooner than later.
In the meantime, I won’t forget Beverly or Donny or Natalie or the six or seven other families whose homes we visited. I won’t forget Henry, the retired baker with a tender heart who brought our crew some made-from-scratch cupcakes fresh from his kitchen across the street from where we worked. I won’t forget the tears and hugs from grateful homeowners, overwhelmed that someone still cared about them weeks after both the storm and the media coverage had passed.
And I’m grateful too, for all my crew mates who kept working even though they were tired and sore. I am grateful for the amazing organizational skills of Samaritan’s Purse to lodge and feed and bathe hundreds of volunteers, some who had crossed several state lines to be there. And I’m grateful that now, when I’m warning our TV viewers about the dangers of whatever current weather is on the radar, I can picture the faces of Donny and Natalie and Beverly and others: real people with real stories and real needs that will go on, long after the storm has subsided.
© Nick Walker 2018
To volunteer for these organizations, go to their web sites:
Can you identify? Have you worked on a project and just been grateful to have helped others? Feel free to leave a comment below.