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Paying Flo forward

I was dragging a load of mangled shutters and twisted aluminum siding to the street at my grandmother’s old house in New Hanover County a couple of weeks ago when a neighbor came up to talk.

“How’d you do?” he asked.

“Not so bad. Siding. Shingles. Shutters. Power’s back. Dumped the fridge. Moving my mother back in today. A lot better than most people.”

We talked for twenty minutes about our stories of Hurricane Florence – about the evacuation, the storm, the aftermath. Smiles. Mutual concern. Relief.

There was no acknowledgement that we hadn’t spoken for a year. No talk of a long-running property line dispute. No political arguments. We were just talking and listening and sharing a moment. 

Conversations like this are going on all across eastern North Carolina and other parts of North and South Carolina. People normally separated by wealth or race or politics or geography are talking to each other, hugging each other, helping each other. 

And if past storms are any indication, I give it another two weeks before it goes away.

But what if this post-disaster comradery — this collective spirit that turns us into our best selves – what if that didn’t go away? What is it about a disaster that brings us together? And what would it take to make that the norm?

I think there are at least four important things that happen to us as neighbors during a disaster, and there is the potential to build off of all of them once the disaster is over:

We share a common enemy. A storm gives us a common enemy. Florence is coming. Florence is here. Florence just kicked our butt. But when the storm is passed, it is hard to know where to focus our attention. For the first part of my life, the US had a common enemy: Russia. And the fear of Russia inspired us to work together to do great things. Since the Cold War ended, politicians have tried in vain to create plausible common enemies, but instead, with the exception of the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we have ended up compromising on enemies that 51% of us can agree on.

What if our new common enemy wasn’t a country or a weather system, but something else we could agree on, like indifference or complacency? Is there a way to define apathy as our enemy?

We share a common goal. We drag limbs together and tear out sheet rock together and patch roofs together because we agree that we all want to get back to normal and we know we can’t get there unless we work together. In our normal lives we pursue our goals independently, too busy with “my” stuff to think about what “our” collective stuff might be, or how much easier it would be to accomplish big things if we worked together. 

What if we recognized that our individual goals can only take us so far, and came together across our divides to build the best downtown, or school system, or community that we could? And then set another goal, and another?

We see each other as human beings. A disaster has a way of stripping away the uniforms that we normally wear and the very different experience of life each of us has based on our neighborhood or education or skin color. We know that the stress and fear and relief that we are all feeling are real — and shared. For a brief period of time, we can emphathize with each other.

What if we each set a goal of talking — and listening — to one person a week who looks different or thinks different than we do? What would we learn that might make us better?

We get contaminated with kindness. In the first few days after a disaster we get a steady supply of stories of people doing extraordinary things. There are heroic electrical workers and rescue personnel, yes, but there are also stories of regular people finding ways to help by putting up strangers, rescuing pets, giving from the very little they have to people who have even less. And those stories inspire others of us to try to do more. When the immediate crisis is over, those stories stop. I assume that’s because reporters are told the same thing I was when I was a reporter – that we need to find people who are doing something wrong and shine a light on them.

What if after the disaster, some reporters had a new assignment: to “catch” people doing good? And what if there was a page a day or five minutes of airtime a day devoted to telling the story of these everyday heroes? And what if others of us liked and retweeted and praised those stories, and made suggestions for others to be featured? It could be contagious. And it might also inspire us to do more. 

Forty-four people are dead as a result of Florence. Total losses from the storm are estimated at somewhere between $6 billion and $11 billion. People have lost cars, boats, belongings, homes, crops, livestock, schools, businesses, and jobs. The people of North Carolina have been inspiring so far in their courage and determination and generosity.

We’re in for a long recovery. We’ll do it better together. And we’ll be better prepared for the next one if we can wrench a few of the lessons from the storm and apply them to our post-storm lives.

Editor’s note: This perspective first appeared in the Institute for Emerging Issues newsletter. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Leslie Boney

Leslie Boney is the director of NC State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues.