Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Beauty of a Small Town

Puffmonkey and I headed down to the emergency shelter today. We couldn’t reach anyone on the phone and decided to just drive there halfway expecting to be turned around and halfway expecting to be put to work.

If what we’re being told is correct, this was the worst tornado to hit our state in recorded history. 120 buildings were destroyed. Many of those were homes. We arrived at the shelter around noon and there seemed to be a serious lack of victims.

Don’t mistake my intentions. I’m glad there weren’t that many people, but after hurricanes and recent natural disasters we expected long lines of people in need. On one end of the cafeteria there were twelve large tables piled high with donations with more donations stowed underneath. On the other end there were six tables loaded with food. There had to be twenty feet of palates of water. Unilever (Lipton) showed up with cases of soap, shampoo and deodorants. Starbucks showed up with a donation of coffee. Outback Steak House showed up with grills and hot plates and fed us Caesar salad, BBQ chicken and wonderful steaks. Churches showed up in organized groups. One set of chaplains had a tent, water, and grills set up outside. Private citizens and churches showed up with all sorts of household items from toys to feminine hygiene products. Volunteers and donations exceeded the needs of the community.

This excess of generosity was not due to over-blown reporting of tragedy. It was due to an underestimation of human compassion. Suffolk, Virginia is the largest town, in miles, in Hampton Roads (and I think the state), but it is the smallest in population in Hampton Roads (not the state). If a family lost their home another family took them in. Churches have rosters of people offering displaced families homes. Navy wives stepped up to help Navy families. Army wives stepped up to help Army families. If my information is correct, there are more offers of housing than there are displaced families.

One family, an immigrant family, lost everything in six minutes yesterday. They lost their nail salon and their home. At least two members of the family were injured. They had a tiny infant and volunteers doted on them. I washed bottles and helped gather water for formula.

At nine o’clock this morning, the shelter had people, but no donations. Some of the volunteers ran to stores and purchased items. Some others made phone calls. By noon the shelter was overrun with donations.

Puffmonkey and I stood in people’s faces until they gave us tasks to do. When that didn’t work, we took initiative and found things to do. Victims who had shelter but lacked food, personal hygiene items, and clothing filtered in during the day. She and I would talk to them and prompt them to take what they needed. We could usually tell who was a volunteer and who was a victim. Victims looked dazed and confused whereas the volunteers looked tired, slightly bored, and ready to help some more. I wasn’t sure which overwhelmed the victims more…the disaster or the outpouring of support. One gentleman stood amongst the donations and seemed utterly confused. I asked him, “How hard were you hit, hon?”

I kept him talking as I handed him comfort kits provided by the Red Cross. I found out about his family as I gathered toys for his kids. Many of the victims didn’t seem to realize they needed items until we asked them if they had shampoo. These items are things that are usually kept in the home. One doesn’t realize they’re missing soap until they reach for what isn’t there. Puff and I loaded people up with things that they needed while pointing out food, cots, and showers.

The family with the infant had bags of things for the little one. No one donated formula and some volunteers went to the store and bought them formula. We waited on them like they were royalty. No one is limping to a trash can on my watch!

This outpouring of compassion should not be taken as an excuse to not donate time, items or money during a disaster. Suffolk was lucky in its unluckiness. Other towns and other disasters are not so lucky. I lived through Hurricane Isabel and had to help people out of their homes because organized relief efforts couldn’t reach them. I’ve had to stand in the piercing rain and 75 mph winds and clear a road with a hacksaw because organized efforts couldn’t get there. My family and I had to take it upon ourselves to find people water and organize food prep and distribution because others were too shocked to do it.

Before Puff and I headed out for home we spoke with the other volunteers. We were willing to stay overnight at the shelter and help, but we weren’t needed. People from the Red Cross, Social Services, Churches, the school and even the Department of Corrections all had representatives there. All of them were shocked to find out Puff and I were two random strangers who came into help. One lady said, “Oh? You two are real volunteers and I think you did more work than anyone else.”

Puff said, “Everyone has a job to do and we found ours.”

I think that sums up disasters quite nicely. Everyone does have a job to do. Find yours.

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