(Sarasota, FL) – So here we sit on the west-central coast of Florida awaiting a hurricane the media is calling the biggest ever in the Atlantic. It’s a category five – the most powerful on the one to five scale – as it wends its way through the Caribbean, but has yet to touch the panicking residents of south Florida – the Miami area in particular.
It’s been said that these natural disasters bring out both the best and worst in people. Hurricane Katrina certainly revealed the worst in both the residents and politicians of New Orleans, as rampant vandalism and looting became the order of the day, and politicians proved unequal to the task of preparing effective contingencies or containing the catastrophic damage. The result was both a human and political disaster of epic proportions.
On the other hand, we recently heard the stories of heroism and effective storm management emanating from Houston as Hurricane Harvey dumped the most rain ever recorded from a single storm in the nation’s fourth largest city. As floodwaters drove thousands from their homes, we were bolstered by reports of citizens – many of them forced out of their own homes – rescuing fellow victims, and of efficient coordination between local, state and federal authorities. The result was a death toll that is currently reported as 60 when it could easily have climbed into the hundreds.
But sometimes the worst – and best – in people is revealed through smaller, relatively inconsequential transactions. Today, as people moved into the serious stage of planning for the worst, the top priorities are water for the home and gas for the car. I went to two gas stations in the immediate area. Both were dry – drained by anxious drivers once reports of the impending storm began to look ominous. At a third station, long lines had developed somewhat haphazardly, reminiscent of the energy crises of the 1970’s. Positioning myself in the queue and finally reaching the head of one of the hastily formed lines, I allowed another car past once he signaled he was just exiting the station. He then maneuvered in front of me, stole my place and rushed to the first vacated pump. When gas is scarce, losing one spot in line could mean getting no gas. Suppose I was a disabled person who really needed that gas for survival? These kind of selfish maneuvers – for which I forcefully called out the driver – reveal the parts of the human character that makes us recoil. (Fortunately, I got my gas anyway).
The fight or flight dilemma faces all who are forced to brace for an impending weather event. Do you ride out the storm, or try to flee before it hits and find a relative or friend willing to take in unexpected visitors? Everyone has a different take – levels of fear and deference to forecasts vary from person to person. But the options are narrowing for those choosing flight. The highways are starting to clog, hotels are filling up, and airlines quickly sold virtually every seat out of Sarasota and nearby Tampa by Tuesday – and the few single seats available were offered at astronomical prices which cry of profiteering. But even in Key West, currently, a bullseye for the eye of Irma, some brave (or misguided) souls have vowed to hunker down and see the storm through, while thousands retreat in panic.
Most people live lives of quiet desperation, but when a crisis hits, opportunities abound to do something truly important – to make a difference. But while crises will build character in some, it will simply reveal it in others.