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Learning from Hugo

Everyone should have to live through a natural disaster. I’m not wishing harm or extensive property loss on anyone—I’m speaking solely about the experience of living through something that interrupts our lives and breaks us down the way a disaster does. Such an occurrence reminds us of what life is meant to be about in a way that few things can.

Our family of five had our experience during the last week of September in 1989. We were living in Sumter, South Carolina. Hurricane Hugo was brewing off the coast and we were told that it was coming inland and to expect a lot of rain. I filled a few bags with sand and placed them in front of our side door (which was at ground level).  With that I felt quite prepared because as a rule, hurricanes lose their power when they come over land and we were about seventy miles from the ocean. 

That night I remember lying in bed and watching the latest weather update that said that Hugo was about to come on land and it was the size of the state of Georgia.  In an ominous note, our electricity went off at this very moment. We would be without power for the next week.  During about half of that time, we were also without water and telephone. Trees were down everywhere, as were power lines. Nobody was going anywhere, but then there really wasn’t anywhere to go. We were confined to our homes and some relatively primitive living conditions.

We learned that most of the material things we place so much value in in were rather useless. It made absolutely no difference what size TV you had or how many cars were in your garage.  Chain saws, generators, grills, and flashlights were about all that mattered. And we found that we could get along without the other stuff just fine. We spent more time outside (the house was too dark inside), we interacted more, read, played games, etc. It’s hard to imagine what some iPhone addicts would do if they had to go without their phone for seven minutes much less seven days.

We learned that we’re all in this thing called life together. Most of the time, this truth is buried beneath the rubble of everyday activity where we go our separate ways and do different things. But Hugo striped away this veneer and helped us to appreciate the community aspect of our lives. We borrowed water from our neighbor’s swimming pool to flush our toilets, we took a hot shower at home of someone who had a generator, those who had freezers hosted cookouts since they couldn’t possibly eat all of the food they had before it spoiled.  It was a unique and special time.

Speaking of spoiling, ice became a prized commodity because it was needed to refrigerate basic necessities like milk and medicine. It couldn’t be purchased at the local stores because they were in the same powerless situation as everyone else. The temporary solution was that ice was trucked in a few times a week to a local shopping center. 

I remember standing in line waiting for our ration of ice thinking that at that moment, we were a classless society. There were not different lines according to your tax bracket—there was one line for everyone. What you owned or where you worked made no difference. There was something powerful about that.

I suppose it was about a month before things got back to normal for most people. Power was restored, most homes were repaired enough to be habitable, people went back to work and kids went back to school. I don’t know that it’s true, but I’d like to think that some lasting lessons were learned from Hugo—the kind that transform us and enable us to live better lives. 

It would be a shame to go through something like that and not learn anything at all.

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