The Chinese symbol for crisis is also the symbol for opportunity. In a very similar way the symbol that graced our television screens symbolized not only the symmetry of a massive hurricane, but the forces of crisis and destruction ahead and the wave of opportunity that followed on the backside of the storm.
In the week prior to Hurricane Irma, the cone of uncertainty wobbling from coast to coast, our newsfeeds clogged with spaghetti models that made us all feel trapped and anxious. Her sheer size was overwhelming to even the oldest die-hard Crackers I know, which in turn made my anxiety that much higher. Everyone’s adrenaline was heightened to a near frantic level in the few days before she made landfall. The was no “in state evacuation” option, which in my almost 50 years as a native Floridian was always a reasonable plan, one I have executed only one other time in my lifetime of living with tropical weather. When multi-generation fisherman start to pack up and leave, this second generation Cortezian stood up and took notice. Hurricane Irma blazed a trail up the spine of the Sunshine State, ripping and shredding all who stood in her wake. Her power and her sheer size pushed our “fight or flight” responses to a near breaking point as she made landfall, and left us all with a profound sense of smallness.
As I wandered the streets of our hometown after she passed I was left with a deep sense of gratitude that we here on the west coast were spared the brunt of her wrath, albeit not by much of a margin. We got a small taste of what may have been as most of us struggled without power, downed trees and minor damage for days. As neighborhoods had power restored, we shared our homes and generators with those still in the dark. Neighbors helped clean debris from their yards and streets, working together and in many cases getting to know one another for the first time.
As I crisscrossed south Florida last week that sense of smallness turned to a deep humility before the true power of Mother Nature. That sense of humility was driven home by the realization of the truly beautiful things Irma gave us all in the guise of destruction. Her ferocious winds blew down trees and snapped telephone poles like twigs, but she also blew down our self-imposed barriers between one another. She ripped down the fences between black and white, rich and poor. She ripped out ideological differences by their very roots. She flooded our shores with the quiet reminder that we are all just as vulnerable as the next, and when her waters receded we were left bare, with only the instinctual need to band together, care for one another, survive and rebuild. As the power is restored, debris cleaned and our homes and businesses get back on line, I hope we choose to not reconstruct these unnecessary barriers that Irma, like an angry mother who has had enough of the senseless bickering of her children, so violently erased. That is the collateral beauty, and it was everywhere at home and in south Florida in Irma’s wake.
Irma showed us what we are capable of as human beings, a lesson we tend to forget as our lives return to normal. It is my hope and my personal goal to maintain that humility and compassion now that the crisis has passed and rebuilding has begun. I will not forget the stories shared with me from those who lost their homes, whose live are forever changed. I will not forget the people I met from all over this country who came to help total strangers in any way they could, taking time from their lives and families to follow their hearts and help. I will never forget the kindness of those who took the time to purchase and deliver needed supplies, many of whom still did not have power in their own homes, for us to distribute to some the poorest working-class areas of Irma’s destruction. I will never take for granted the frailty of our civilized existence, without power, water or infrastructure because I know it can be quickly erased from our lives. In the midst of the chaos, the pain and the loss, don’t forget to look for the collateral beauty.
There is still much work to be done.
photos from Rose Lipke