Storm’s aftermath reminds: Best of human nature emerges when nature behaves badly

It’s sticky now in those powerless D.C. apartments, stifling in those suburban Maryland and Virginia ranchers, brutally boring in those family rooms where the kids are having to figure out how to entertain themselves without joysticks or DVDs. But if I’ve learned anything in nearly two decades of getting paid to linger in places where nature behaves badly — more than a dozen major hurricanes, plus an assortment of tornadoes, ice storms, windstorms, snowstorms and earthquakes — it is this: People are good. People are adaptable. They’re good and adaptable in situations far worse than the one we’re dealing with now, and they’re good and adaptable in situations that aren’t as rough. 

So, we’ll get through this.

If you doubt me, look at Facebook this morning. Both friends and “friends” are posting messages like this one: “I have electricity if anyone in D.C. needs a place to recharge and cool off.” Governments across the region are opening “cooling centers” left and right, but the cooling centers next door are the most poignant and the least heralded.

The weather guys call this storm a “derecho,” a name derived from the Spanish word for straight ahead, because it is a type of windstorm that travels in a roughly straight line. But derecho also has another meaning in Spanish — it can mean “a right,” as in a human right. In some ways, those powered-up “friends” inviting their powerless friends and “friends” over to their houses to cool off are validating that simple human right to be treated well by those around us.

No one mandates these acts of kindness, large and small. It’s simply what we do. No entity ordained the creation of the Cajun Flotilla, those tough Louisianians with musical names like Faucheux and Thibodeaux, who flowed into New Orleans with speed and daring for heroic rescues after Katrina while the governments frittered away precious hours. 

Dale Coon, a self-proclaimed redneck with a barbed-wire tattoo on his left arm, certainly wasn’t waiting for official guidance as he sloshed me and a group of his friends through a New Orleans neighborhood where fires burned on oil slicks in the waist-deep water. In those days just after the levee broke, New Orleans was an almost lawless town, and the crack of gunshots was the nightly soundtrack. Coon didn’t need to be there in that fetid city-turned-swamp that day — he lived far from the flooded streets. But he’d stuffed a .38 special and a .357 magnum into his pants front and waded into the water, steering us past an enormous water moccasin, because his friend’s dogs were trapped in a putrid house and his friend’s elderly neighbor was missing. 

I was reminded of Coon two years later, when I again found myself floating down city streets, rather than driving down them, as the water rose in the Mexican state of Tabasco in October and November 2007. I noticed a small, wiry man lifting neighbors out of his canoe and pulling them to the rooftop of a house whose first floor was now an aquarium. Up there, he’d fashioned a spit to roast a freshly butchered pig — the one pig he owned, now transformed into a neighborhood buffet. Why do all that, I asked. “They’re hungry,” he said matter-of-factly. Wasn’t there a place he could take them? He just laughed and pulled another woman up.

I could almost smell the luscious scent of that roasting pork when I heard that Wagshal’s, that lovely little market and butcher shop in Spring Valley in Northwest, had set up a grill out front. The locals who popped by for sausage and chicken weren’t fleeing a biblical flood, but the act of generosity shown by a local merchant was inspired by the same sense of community I’d seen when a tornado pummeled a Tennessee mountain town or an ice storm paralyzed Charlotte. Wagshal’s was adapting to its dilemma — its stock was in danger of spoiling, so it chose to give it away rather than watch it waste away. The store couldn’t have adapted better.

In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake, I met a man who hauled a television out of his house, strapped it to the back of a pickup truck and created an impromptu movie theater for the displaced children of his neighborhood, a place called the Village of God. The only price of admission was love.

I came to think of a barber whom I met in that beatifically named place of human misery as a Haitian MacGyver. He’d turned a car battery into a mini-generator, slinging wires into a ball-of-yarn style mess that somehow gave juice to his razors, his radio and a half-a-dozen cellphones taken to him by friends. I asked him how he’d found time to build this contraption in the frantic hours after the earth started shaking. Oh no, he told me, he’d built it long before. In his impoverished country, the power supply was so unreliable that he’d given up counting on it. He’d adapted — before the earthquake and after.

 I started to mumble something through an interpreter about how this made me feel about my cozy life in the United States, where I didn’t need to worry about inventing contraptions to power my electric razor. But the barber cut me off. We laugh about it, he told me. What else can we do?

Indeed, isn’t that exactly the quality that makes us best able to deal with adversities of the epic scale — a la Katrina and Port-au-Prince — and the more transitory annoyances and dangers of a windstorm that steals our air conditioners for a time and takes lives in the cracking and crashing of a tree trunk?

In New Orleans, as always, the people were pitch-perfect. Within weeks of Katrina, I awoke one morning to a spontaneous parade in the French Quarter. The marchers were dressed in homemade hazmat suits or cardboard renditions of refrigerators, a nod to the kitchen appliances turned stinking yard ornaments across that broken, wounded, wonderful city.

One friend joked to me that the District’s bout of discomfort could be divine retribution for the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Obamacare case. Another skewered the hapless local utilities, quipping without any attempt at exaggeration that he lost power more often now than when he lived in Zimbabwe. Those cracks cracked me up, but they were no dancing refrigerators. Then again, this ain’t no Katrina.

Believe me — we’ll get through this.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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