Finding Elmer in Hurricane Sandy

This is where I found Elmer, the Volunteer Craftsman.

One week ago today, my wife and I spent most of the night in total darkness lying on a mattress we had dragged into the front hallway: the location we determined to be the safest in the house…other than the basement, which we considered our retreat of last resort. On the other side of our front door, Hurricane Sandy lived up to expectations. Over the howling 80 mile per hour wind and the sound of aluminum siding being ripped away from the house, we could hear the mammoth trees that surrounded our house groan and fall, one at a time…but without the enormous thud one would expect, as their root systems, still clinging to clumps of rocks and dirt, slowed their trajectory.

For nearly two hours, waiting for any one of those trees to fall directly on to our house, we were completely at the mercy of the gods, statistical probability and dumb luck. We felt terror and helplessness, and unlike how we all spend most of our lives – watching others on a screen experience actual or scripted misfortune – this event was happening to us, it was real, and we were directly in harm’s way. Our three dogs, secured in their cages for the evening, were all strangely quiet, as if they understood the seriousness of the situation.

At first light, we surveyed how our property had been re-landscaped by the storm. Nearly a dozen trees, all more than twice the height of our house, were on the ground and all pointing in the same direction, as though they had been knocked down by a giant bowling ball. Our aluminum fence was crushed in several places, our chicken-less chicken coop destroyed, and our yard scarred by huge 3-foot craters at the base of each fallen tree. No tree had hit the house, and we counted our blessings, thankful to be alive.

Since that moment of profound thanks, and over the course of one week (so far) living without electricity, refrigeration, microwave oven, internet service, cable TV, phone service, hot showers or gasoline, a few things came into clearer focus:

  • “Civilized man” appears no longer capable of enduring any prolonged period of discomfort. We are hooked on electricity, plumbing and technology, and have no notion of how we might survive without any of them. We are addicted to physical comfort and entertainment.
  • The line between civilized society and total anarchy appears extremely tenuous. If it takes the local police to manage orderly distribution of gasoline at a filling station when supply is low, what happens when food and water supplies are short? Society scoffs at hard-core survivalists, but there is much truth in what they preach about human behavior.
  • We only really feel or care about misfortunes that happen to us and our families. As I sat in my dark, cold kitchen using limited laptop battery life, it annoyed me to see Facebook friends who had not been affected by the hurricane conduct their usual online banter.
  • We have very short memories. The power will eventually be restored, fences rebuilt, trees replanted and daily routines re-established. We’ll all return to our “normal” lives, and push Hurricane Sandy into that small corner of our brain reserved for things we’d rather forget.

At the “warming shelter” that had been set up at our local fire house for people without electricity, we met Elmer, a retired executive now serving as a full-time Red Cross volunteer, who has been on site at every major national catastrophe across the country over the past decade. Elmer was there simply to talk to people, to put their situation into perspective, to offer support and to provide helpful information if he could.

For me, other than taking cold showers and not having a tree fall on the house, Elmer is what I will remember most about Hurricane Sandy. Because Elmer reminded me that there are plenty of people who do care about others, and who are willing to be uncomfortable in order to help them. Elmer and his fellow practitioners of volunteering craftsmanship are just harder to find.

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