We were involved in hurricane relief in Florida last week. Flying to Ft. Lauderdale just as Hurricane Jeanne churned north toward Orlando, we found people weary after four 2004 hurricanes, emerging from their shuttered homes with the hope that the series of storms is over. Visiting the dark home of a friend who hadn’t had her corrugated metal storm shutters off the house in weeks, we brandished tools and began their removal—allowing sunshine into the cave-like dwelling and changing the spirit of the place.
But that’s really not the hurricane relief I’m talking about. You and I and every other tax-paying American citizen have been involved in hurricane relief all summer. Every time you hear that an area has been designated a disaster area, making money available for the residents to clean up and rebuild, it’s coming out of our pockets. In 2004 alone, there have been 121 federal disaster declarations. In Florida, $375 million has been spent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in hurricane recovery—and that doesn’t county Hurricane Jeanne.
There are a lot worse ways for the government to spend our money, and it seems that they work hard at that. It is, however, a sad commentary on how we help each other as a society that the first place we look for help in a disaster is the government, not each other–the community, the church, the neighborhood.
At a dinner party over the weekend, a friend whose family served as missionaries in Irian Jaya described how the village tribes came together in times of disaster to rebuild homes and put the village back together after a disaster. It is just what they do. There is no FEMA and the tribe does everything as a group.
We know stories of community relief in this country. When a hurricane strikes an area, we see some hints of the way a culture can come together. The red and white canteens of The Salvation Army show up before the wind stops blowing and remain for weeks. The Red Cross is front and center, and there are many church and social services groups that spring to action. We are usually better neighbors when we face common crises, but our impulses have been trained to look first to government, and then to each other.
I suppose if the capricious winds of disaster knock down my walls, I’ll be glad that funds are available from the government. But it would be even more satisfying to see a vanload of friends from the church pulling up in my driveway with hammers in hand and load of lumber strapped to the top. That’s the way we began as a nation, and from time to time we can see enough of it to realize it can still be part of modern life.