Helping a nation rebuild after tragedy

Years ago, while in New Orleans for work I took a tour of historic homes. The region is steeped in history and the tour guide was a wealth of knowledge, not just about the homes, but also about the lives of those who lived in them. She had acquired her unique knowledge while working as a gardener for the most of the homes on the tour.

The homes of movie celebrities, professional athletes, rock stars, and famous authors where featured. The stately homes and sweeping landscaped yards where spectacular, but the stories of the residents where even more fascinating.

My New Orleans visit was about five years after Hurricane Katrina. During the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, the driver was pointing out points of interest. When we passed the Superdome I made a comment about the stadium being used for Hurricane Katrina, and asked if he knew anyone who took shelter there. The air instantly became thick with the heaviness of a memory one doesn’t want. He said yes, and the rest of the ride was dense with silence.

Had the news of the hurricane not been a subject of national importance for so long, I may not have known anything had happened while visiting. A few businesses that suffered incredible damage, but managed to reopen, shared their success and gratitude. But other than that, nobody really talked about it; understandably so.

Katrina displaced 770,000 people, that’s more than the Dust Bowl migration during the Great Depression. It wreaked havoc on 93,000 square miles of land, the surface size of four Lake Hurons. Her parting gift was 118 million cubic yards of debris — this would make a trash heap that would completely fill Fletcher’s Floodwaters. The resulting economic impact was devastating but now, more than 10 years later, some say they are a better city than they were before the storm.

During the home tour in New Orleans someone asked about how Katrina had impacted the homes on the tour. The tour guide stopped walking and turned to face us. She said that nobody cared about how the homes were affected; what they cared about where their people.

Then she told the story of her employer. Her employer is a wealthy man who owns several successful businesses. When Katrina was approaching land he was busy making sure his family and employees were out of harm’s way. Just prior to storm surge landfall he went to the safe in his house to get his stash of emergency money (which was equivalent to the average American’s savings) and put it in a backpack. By this time the flooding was past the point of mitigation. He couldn’t get out. He climbed up to the roof of his three-story home as the water continued to rise. He was stuck on his roof for days with no way of calling anyone for help. Fortunately someone noticed him on the roof and he was rescued.

The tour guide said that the lesson he shared after it was over was that he had a backpack full of money and it couldn’t save him. Nobody cared about money when death and destruction were floating all around.

The utter devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and the upcoming Jose and Katia is yet to be fully comprehended. But one thing is for certain. People are going to need help. The size of your TV, the score from the game, and the frequency with which you mow your lawn are no longer important when people you love are in danger.

There is no doubt that these disasters will change the way much of America views their priorities. To go from living in one of the most developed nations in the world, to living in a third-world landscape overnight is not something most of us can understand or navigate successfully.

How do you get clean drinking water when the city is submerged and sewer water is mixing with flood water running past your feet? How do you get food when the grocery store is flattened? Do you still have a job when your place of employment is now a pile of rubble?

Just think, if something like this happened in Alpena, what would we do for each other? How can you help Florida and Texas? After Harvey, people with boats traveled to Texas to help patrol the waters to save people and animals. Have an extra room in your house? Open it to family or friends that have been displaced and need some time to find their bearings. Research localized non-profits near storm-damaged areas and find out what they need (food supplies, pet food, clothing, building materials?).

America has done it before and she can do it again. Resiliency is one of our greatest character assets as a nation.

Mary Beth Stutzman’s Inspiring A-Town runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter @mbstutz.