Long After the Storm

There are a plethora of websites, blogs, and news sites that have addressed the tragedy of the Sandy “superstorm” and the broken and struggling lives it has left behind in New York and New Jersey, so I didn’t intend on writing about it. I thought that I couldn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said and with far more eloquence and compassion by the many others who have already spoken.

But then I read “A Lesson From the Storm” on Shmarya Rosenberg’s blog FailedMessiah.com. I follow Rosenberg’s blog regularly but never comment and I am periodically dubious as to his bias against the Chabad community. Nevertheless, I couldn’t ignore the call for understanding and the challenge to extend myself beyond my usual limits.

One of the new facts of life in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is that tens of thousands of people are now reliant on some form of assistance, be that help from FEMA or the Red Cross or from smaller local organizations like churches and synagogues.

People who never before had to ask for or accept charity now are forced by circumstances to stand in lines at ad hoc soup kitchens and sleep at the homes of family, friends or even strangers or shelters while some form of temporary housing is found for them.

In some ways, they are now living the lives of America’s poorest citizens, never knowing if they will have a roof over their heads tomorrow or food to eat.

The very poor and homeless we are used to seeing are often mentally ill or drug addicted, and it is easy for us to blame their poverty on their own behavior or on being crazy.

But what we don’t see are the thousands of very poor Americans who have been priced out of the housing market and who sleep in shelters or on friends’ couches, go to work at low paying jobs with no benefits, and who rush back to those shelters before their early evening closing, often hungry, just so that they don’t get locked out.

We don’t see the very poor who became impoverished because of a severe illness, who had to choose between getting a very ill child to regular therapy appointments and their jobs.

We don’t see the families, ravaged by job loss, job erosion and by employers who cut or eliminate employee benefits, often by cutting employees’ hours to just below the full-time threshold, families whose regular dinners consist of ramen soup and whose breakfasts are often nonexistent.

As horrible as it is right now in some Jewish areas of New York City, just blocks away outside them it is often far worse, because these already poor communities lack the financial resources and fundraising expertise to supplement the assistance the government can give.

I’m politically and fiscally conservative and so I don’t believe that all social ills can be “solved” simply by creating a program and then throwing tax dollars at it. Also, having worked as a family counselor and social worker in both the San Francisco Bay Area and in Orange County (Calif.), I know about the struggles of the mentally ill and the limits of any social system in perfecting a “solution” for prejudice, homelessness, poverty, and the pull between the need for help and the illness that drives such a vulnerable population away from hope. In my time as a child abuse investigator for Child Protective Services in Southern Califonia, I met with many families on welfare (since they are disproportionately reported to “the system”), but in all that time, I found only one family who was using public funds as a temporary aid while they tried to remediate their circumstances. All of the others treated welfare like a multi-generational lifestyle and “worked” the system the way other people worked at jobs.

I say all of that to help you understand my perspective on the politics behind economic and social assistance programs and their relative effectiveness in changing “temporary” aid into a permanent institution. Often, those attitudes are in conflict with a greater imperative.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:34-40 (ESV)

Decades ago, I read a statistic saying that most Americans are only one or two paychecks away from homelessness. Given the massive amount of debt most individuals carry, I don’t doubt the statement to be just as true today as it was back then. Probably more so.

I’m fortunate to have a job today. It has benefits including medical insurance. I live in a house with my family. I drive a car in good operating condition to and from work each day. I sleep in a comfortable bed and I don’t have to worry about not getting enough food, being too warm or too cold, or doing without all of the basic necessities and many of the comforts.

But I’ve also been unemployed. I’ve never been homeless, but I’ve been depressed, frustrated, angry, and desperate. I’ve worked low paying full-time jobs while going to school full-time just to support my family and try to rebuild my life. I’ve been hurt and sick with no medical benefits, so I just had to put up with being hurt and sick. There were months when I barely saw my family let alone talked to them. Sleep was all but an illusion. I was a middle-aged man burning the candle at both ends because I had to and there was no one to help me except me.

And God.

Which is why, in spite of the fact that I’m always dubious of a political solution to a human problem, I find that we must show compassion and render assistance to people who need assistance. If we are to err, let’s err on the side of generosity rather than stinginess. Consider the following, which is a comment made by a Katrina victim in response to Rosenberg’s blog post:

I can speak to this. One day I was comfortably (upper) middle class, living in a 2400 sq ft house filled with stuff, much of it of sentimental, as well as monetary, value: artwork, heirlooms, antiques, rare books, and so on. The next day I was homeless with only the clothes on my back and the contents of a small carry-on. Although I tried to, I got no help from the Federation or the Red Cross, and I did not get all that I was supposed to from FEMA. For months my job was wrangling on the phone with two insurance companies trying to get the reimbursements that my policies called for–with limited success. If I hadn’t worked in the insurance industry and didn’t know what my policies really provided, I would have gotten even less. Fortunately I had some assistance from my son (logistical, not financial) and some savings, or I do not know what would have become of me. With my own resources I was able to survive, have a roof over my head, food on the table and other necessities. In the general atmosphere of no help I do have to thank a group of Jewish volunteers from North Carolina who cleaned out the contents of my flooded house (a disgusting job) and another group of Southern Baptists who gutted my house–and the US tax code which allowed me to deduct portions of my $300,000 worth of uninsured losses. In addition I lost my whole circle of friends and acquaintances, health care providers, etc., etc. These social ties were extremely difficult, in some cases impossible, to reproduce in my new life.

In addition I have suffered psychological trauma that I don’t think will ever pass. A heavy rain (even here in the desert) makes me very nervous, and I am very distressed whenever there is a hurricane on the loose, although there are no hurricanes possible in Arizona. At an event marking the fifth anniversary of Katrina, I met a friend, neighbor, and colleague who also relocated to Arizona. She told me that she didn’t have enough clothes or furnishings because she was afraid that if she acquired anything, she would lose it. I told her that I have a ridiculously excessive wardrobe, because I am afraid of being left again with nothing but the clothes on my back. Eerily three weeks after this conversation, my friend’s new home was burned to the ground by an arsonist. One of my best friends was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter just before a looter, carrying a gun, was about to enter her home. She continues to have post-traumatic emotional problems.

When we look at the news, we see unknown figures and hear nameless statistics. When we encounter the homeless and the mentally ill on our streets, we automatically think “bum,” or “panhandler,” “addict,” or “nutcase.” We don’t see the human faces. We don’t hear the human voices. But they’re there and they’re real. Like most of humanity, we tend not to care about a problem until it becomes our problem. It rarely has an emotional impact on us and even more rarely inspires us to offer assistance until it becomes personal; until it happens to us, or to a relative, or to a friend, or maybe because someone we care about also cares about the victims.

Five hundred years ago or so, a man named John Donne penned these words:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

No Man is an Island
MEDITATION XVII
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

If we are indeed “involved in mankind,” then whatever happens to another human being, happens to us. As Christ said, whenever we help the least of all human creatures, we have helped the author of our souls.

Most of all, and this is important, we don’t have to assume that once the initial crisis has passed that everyone is going to be fine and we can go about our usual lives. We don’t have to return to being unconcerned for those whose lives will take years to recover, if they ever will recover completely. Do you ever wonder about the victims of the earthquake in Haiti? Do you still recall those lives devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan? Do you ever, ever wonder what all of those people are doing right now?

The victim of Katrina suffers years after the disaster. His heart, his feelings, his life is still being damaged by the storm. And yet, as painful as I can only imagine that might be, the greater injury is done by uncaring neighbors, by unfeeling humanity who asks “for whom the bell tolls,” and then not recognizing the name, shuts out the sound of a small shattered voice, softly crying in the background.

Only the hurricane has passed. The storm of anguish and need is still raging, its call, unanswered and unheeded.

EDIT: Unfortunately, the nor’easter that interrupted recovery efforts from Superstorm Sandy pulled away from New York and New Jersey Thursday morning, leaving a blanket of thick, wet snow, and triggering even more anxiety and despair among those people still in the first stages of trying to recover.

To help victims of Sandy, donations to the American Red Cross can be made by visiting Red Cross disaster relief, or you can text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

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