Columnist: The power of a community when a natural disaster strikes
As America commemorates the 10th anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, I can sympathize a little with what many people in Louisiana and Mississippi experienced, because a tropical storm drove me and my family from our home just a month or so earlier.
Only July 14, 2005, the remnants of Tropic Storm Dennis passed over Columbus and LaGrange, Georgia. My daughter was in day care, and my wife was preparing for her new job at LaGrange Academy. I was working on a scholarly article about democracy and conflict. I had a fresh pot of coffee, and was getting a lot of work done. A storm was raging outside. I really didn’t want to leave.
But I wanted to. Our nursing department secretary’s husband died after a fall from a roof. His funeral was that day. I imagined the widow, nearly alone in an empty First Baptist Church on the Square, or at the grave site. It was the right thing to do. As it turned out, the Baptist Church was packed. I barely had room to fit into a pew.
It turned out to be a lucky move for me. That’s because a lightning bolt hit the back of our house. A neighbor described it as sounding like a bomb went off nearby. She spotted the smoke and fire from our house, and she called the fire department. The nurse, who was watching the neighbor’s son, ran down the street to our house, knowing our pets were trapped inside. It’s a good thing she was an ex-firefighter, because she broke down our door with her shoulder to rescue them.
I saw an amazing scene when I returned home after a frantic call from my wife. It looked like one of those classic scenes from Colonial America. The whole neighborhood was out, trying to rescue a few items here and there for us. One put tarps over the burned out roof. Sure we lost plenty, but folks helped preserve some clothes and dishes.
As we huddled in a neighbor’s carport, trying to decide what to do, the Academic Dean of the college drove out to our place to give us keys to one of the dorms, so we would have a place to stay. Professors and staff put out the alert.
One business professor, with a large family of her own, brought over their dinner. A history professor brought over fruit, veggies and a dessert. A psychology professor rounded up stuffed animals for my 2-year-old daughter.
Others gave us whatever we needed to get by, and so many came by to wish us well. Our church put us on the prayer list, and you could feel that community presence there for us, so we didn’t feel so alone.
My sister-in-law, a science professor, was actually on her way with her family to visit us from Illinois, and wound up joining us in the dorms. I’d like to think her amazed reaction to the Southern hospitality of West Georgia was one of several contributing factor to her decision to come to Columbus State University to teach.
Am I the exception? That’s not really the case. I’ve found numerous situations where others have been in similar distress, and have been helped by the community.
We’ve even had the chance to help others the way we were helped. It’s just another reason why West Georgia can be a pretty special place. And yes, it came as no surprise that the region took in Hurricane Katrina refugees, a bright spot that doesn’t always make the news coverage outside of the South.