Hurricanes reveal our vulnerabilities. They also show our strength.

Published 4:47 pm Friday, September 14, 2018

“Do you have any generators left?”, a tired-looking woman asks me at 7:15 Thursday morning. She is wearing nurse’s scrubs and, judging from her pink-tinged eyes, appears to have just finished a long shift.

“No,” I reply, “we sold every single one we had yesterday.”

This is the truth. We had received an emergency shipment of 100 generators the day before, but they had all sold out within a matter of hours.

“Oh, shoot,” she says, seemingly frustrated. “Is there anywhere in town I can buy one today?”

I give her the same answer I’ve given dozens, if not hundreds, of people before her, “I’m sorry, but everywhere appears to be sold out.”

This is the current state of affairs throughout most of North Carolina. As a service manager at a large home improvement retailer, I’m accustomed to disaster prep and recovery. Each big storm or weather event triggers a surge in business as people frantically stock up on batteries, tarps, generators, flashlights, plastic sheeting, buckets, propane tanks, portable grills, charcoal, sandbags, bottled water.

I’ve worked through the rush of many large storms, blizzards and natural disasters. The rush to prepare for Hurricane Florence, with its potential historic severity, feels different — it’s bringing up old memories of the last time a storm with this power hit North Carolina. It’s reminding me that moments like these expose our vulnerabilities, but also reveal unexpected kindness.

It turned out the woman looking for a generator wasn’t frustrated; she was concerned about someone else. She told me she’s a home-care nurse for a patient who has to be on a respirator 24 hours a day. If her patient’s power goes out and emergency personnel are unable to respond, it could mean life or death. She left my store with a worried look on her face.

It’s impossible, as a North Carolinian, to not think back to Hurricane Hugo in 1989. I was nearly 6. When the wind and rain hit my family’s house in Stanly County, a rural county in the Piedmont region about 40 miles north of Charlotte, it sounded like a freight train passing overhead.

The next morning, we found the enormous old trees that had surrounded our house toppled over, their roots pulled up. The fallen giants left craters in their place large enough for me and my sister to hide in with room to spare. There was no power, phone service or communication. To me, it was all a great adventure. To my father, who had the arduous task of clearing a quarter-mile driveway of fallen trees so he could get to town, I’m sure it was more of a nightmare. And to our neighbor, who let us live in his trailer for the weeks while our power was fixed, it was an opportunity for decency.

It is all too easy to poke fun at the panic that inevitably ensues before a weather event like Florence. We shake our heads at the people rushing out and buying up all the bread and milk that they can. But when you work in a store that sells disaster supplies, be they groceries or generators, you get to see past the panic. Instead. you see people who desperately want to protect and provide for those they love and care about.

When you see a person piling a cart full of batteries and flashlights, it’s easy to assume they are just being overprepared. What you don’t see is that that person is a parent to a child who is terrified of the dark. The flashlights they are buying will illuminate their home when the power goes out, and the pained look on their face is out of love for their child.

You might see a man walking out of a store with a half dozen large tarps and think he’s paranoid, but what you don’t see is the leaking roof he has at home that is currently out of his budget to fix. The tarps are to block the water so the roof doesn’t cave in over his kitchen.

You see people buying chain saws who have never used them, but what you don’t see is their house surrounded by old-growth trees that are already dying from the heat, begging for a strong wind to knock them down.

North Carolina is mobilizing to meet this hurricane head on because many of us have been in this situation before. We were mostly caught unaware by Hugo, and we won’t be fooled again.

I think about my father and his chain saw diligently clearing the area so he could get his truck into town and check on our neighbors. I remember how our community came together to help one another after the storm. It’s been easy to lose sight of all that during the panic and preparation of the last few days.

But it all came back to me this afternoon when I helped an older gentleman find a specific item he needed. Before taking more than one, the man inquired about our stock level, saying, “I just want to make sure there’s enough for everyone before I take two.”

Sometimes you have to be tested before your strength can be revealed. This is true in individuals as well as communities. Assisting members of my community with their preparations for Hurricane Florence has showed me that when your neighborhood is at its most vulnerable, its strengths will shine through. It’s unfortunate that it sometimes takes a crisis for us to look beyond ourselves and to the needs of those around us. It makes me wonder what we could accomplish if we didn’t need a looming storm to bring us together.

 Link is a retail manager and operates his own holistic healing practice in North Carolina.