There are 168 hours in a week. We don’t think about that much. We work, cook, play with the kids, water the garden, read, get together with friends, kick back with a favorite TV series, indulge in a hobby or work on a pet project, sleep. The weeks turn into months. The rhythm of our life.
We don’t think about it much. Until it shatters. The place where we work—gone. The supermarket we shop—gone. The school our kids attend—gone. And worse, far worse, the house we live in—and with it the family photo albums, all our books, our treasured LPs, the prints and posters that adorn our walls, collected from travels near and far, the quilt our great-grandmother stitched—gone, all gone, crushed beneath storm-felled trees and swept out to sea by massive waves. In mere minutes, everything we have, the physical foundation of our life, and the emotional comfort of home, even if it’s just a couple of rented rooms … GONE.
Reduced to Statistics
That’s what happened to thousands of people while Ed and I were in France in September. Hurricane Fiona ripped through the Dominican Republic, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico—the last still recovering from the massive assault of Hurricane Maria—before funneling northward to wreak havoc on Eastern Canada. We came home the day a second hurricane, Ian, wiped out much of Florida’s Gulf Coast. For two days, the news featured nothing but harrowing footage of flooded homes, battered boats, and fatally-submerged cars. “Our home, the life we built, everything, it’s all gone,” wailed one woman. Her cry, in various iterations, was echoed by dozens, then hundreds as twelve-foot waves swamped and swallowed everything along the shore. “Hurricane Ian Batters Florida’s Gulf Coast with Catastrophic Fury” Reuters reported.
Now, a scant five days later, the handwringing is fading. The headlines are mostly updates on body counts: “Death Toll from Hurricane Ian Surpasses 100 as the Search for Survivors Continues in Florida” (CNN). Or $$$ estimates of the destruction it inflicted: “Hurricane Ian’s Staggering Scale of Damage Becomes Clearer” (The New York Times). In fact, a quick google turned up more than a dozen reports on Ian’s rising death toll in the Sunshine State, but nothing of the thousands left homeless. Yet, for those among the living most seriously affected by Ian—like the people MSNBC’s Ali Velshi interviewed who now have only the clothes they stand up in—their lives continue amid devastation.
One-hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week. I remember thinking about this in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005), when some 10,000 New Orleans residents sheltered in the Louisiana Superdome (now the Caesars Superdome). I imagined the families—distraught parents, having no clue as to where their lives were headed, how they might proceed, the kids whining: Mommy, I’m hungry. Mommy, I want my toys. Mommy, when can we go home? Mommy, I’m BORED. Did relief agencies wrangle 10,000 cots, or did people just have to sleep on the bare floor of the Superdome with (maybe) a blanket? What about a change of clothing? How did they manage bathroom facilities for 10,000 people? What did they do all day?
Katrina’s refugees stayed in the Superdome for an entire week. One-hundred and sixty-eight hours. And then what? FEMA was on the ground, but the city was still a mess and many people had no power, no running water—no working toilets, no cleansing showers, no turning on the tap for a drink. What do you do?
Hurricane Ian washed away parts of the Sanibel Causeway, leaving Sanibel Island residents stranded, adrift from the mainland. Hurricane Fiona dumped close to three feet of rain on Puerto Rico, a massive flood with mudslides that wiped out roads and bridges, leaving many in the island’s mountain towns without access to food, utilities, or medical care. How long can you survive without food? Imagine having a stroke with literally no road to a hospital. Or, depending on your location, not even the ability to contact a healthcare facility by cellphone. WHAT DO YOU DO?
These are the stories we never hear. What happened to those left homeless in the flash floods that swamped Kentucky this past July? The wildfires that burned over half a million acres in Oregon and 2.5 million acres in California in 2021? The hurricane (Dorian) that levelled the Bahamas in 2019, causing “unprecedented damage”? These disasters all carry a heavy human toll, but mostly all we get is statistics. On October 2, NPR reported that more than 100,000 people in Puerto Rico were still without power two weeks after Fiona. Yes, that’s worth noting, but what did those people do all day, day after day, week in, week out? Where are those stories? It took almost six months in 2017 for power to be fully restored to the island after Hurricane Maria hit. One-hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week. Four-thousand, three-hundred, and sixty-eight hours in six months. A half year. A very long time when your life is on hold. A long time to be “forgotten.”
Climate Change: The Terrible Cost of Starting Over
We know that climate change is wreaking havoc across the nation—and around the world. More powerful hurricanes that cause severe flooding along coastal areas. Widespread wildfires in the increasingly rain-starved breadbaskets of the world—California and the Midwest, France, Brazil. We speak of this in the aggregate but never, or rarely, of the very real impact the warming of our planet has on the people whose daily life vanishes in a blaze, a flash flood, a landslide. The price to be paid, and who pays it, for the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, nitrogen fertilizers, and livestock farming. As Al Gore famously noted, it is an inconvenient truth.
How is the actual cost for such devastation to be met by its victims. Most people’s home insurance covers fire or damage from falling trees, but flood insurance is not a part of the standard homeowner coverage. It can be purchased, but the extra cost (an average $985) makes it a hard pinch for some families and an impossibility for many. Yet, just one inch of water can damage a home to the tune of $25,000.
So, along with the emotional distress of having your home, its comforts and memories, wiped out, there’s the very real fiscal question of how does one “start over”? The median savings for Americans age 35-44 is just $4,710, and many families have no savings at all.
Their Stories Could Be Our Story
Yes, the world moves on, but maybe in such moments of disaster for tens of thousands, it should linger a little. Not a parroting of dollar-damage stats, but updates on the stories of real lives lived under extremely stressful conditions. The family of five with no home, no car, no clothing, no way to pass the hours comfortably with three children under the age of ten. The elderly couple living on a fixed income with no resources to “start over”, their one asset—their home—having been washed away. The farmer who lost both home and barn but must somehow manage to feed and care for the half dozen dairy cows and the chickens who survived. This last, by the way, is a true story—the woman said large dairies have their barns insured, but the price was too steep for her small operation.
If the news agencies like AP and Reuters and the television networks each chose 2-3 families to follow as they put their lives back together. If we continued to hear the stories in weekly updates—to live the experience, if only at secondhand—of those whose lives disaster has upended, to witness their daily struggles, to champion their resilience and strength, we might be reminded that we are all in this together. We might organize to demand real action on climate change to save our planet. And if our turn in the barrel should come, if we should find ourselves homeless, frightened, uncertain of the next step, we might not find ourselves alone.
As you go about your life in the coming week, think about the ease with which you fill a glass of cold water from the tap or pull a soft drink from the fridge to quench your thirst, the pleasure of taking a book from the shelf and sinking into your favorite chair for a read, the simple act of choosing something to wear from the selection of clean clothes in your closet or dresser, and how good it feels at the end of the day to lie down in your own bed. And then imagine it all…gone.
One-hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week. Week after week. We must pay attention. We must help one another.
If you can afford it—even ten dollars helps—please consider donating to one of these orgs to ease the distress Hurricanes Fiona and Ian have caused so many families.
World Central Kitchen: “WCK is first to the frontlines, providing meals in response to humanitarian, climate, and community crises. When disaster strikes WCK’s Relief Team mobilizes to the frontlines with the urgency of now to start cooking and provide meals to people in need… We know that good food provides not only nourishment, but also comfort and hope, especially in times of crisis.”
To donate to WCK, go to: https://donate.wck.org/give/417669/#!/donation/checkout
American Red Cross: “Help People Affected by Hurricane Ian.” (Note: The Red Cross is still assisting people affected by Hurricane Fiona, too.)
To donate to the Red Cross, go to: https://www.redcross.org/donate/donation.html/
The Salvation Army: “From Florida to Puerto Rico, The Salvation Army is there to provide food, drinks, shelter, emotional and spiritual care and other emergency services to hurricane survivors and rescue workers. Your generosity enables The Salvation Army to serve those in need and fight back against the pain caused by Hurricanes Ian and Fiona, bringing comfort to families and offering hope in the aftermath of natural catastrophes.”
Click to choose whether your donation goes to victims of Fiona or Ian. Or, why not split your donation, and give half the sum to each?
To donate to the Salvation Army, go to: https://give.helpsalvationarmy.org/give/166081/#!/donation/checkout?utm_source=google_lerma&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=disaster&utm_content=text&utm_campaign=edonation_national_brand&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI__e_1cvd-gIVD6_ICh2ZRAdNEAAYASAAEgJzxvD_BwE&pid=cpc:edonation_national_brand::google_lerma:::::eastern_eastern:disaster:disaster