Jay Lawrence of the American Red Cross called local response to the Hurricane Irma emergency “simply overwhelming.” What he didn’t call it, appropriately, is surprising. Because it wasn’t. What it was, and continues to be, is gratifying.
As reported by staff writer Scott Berson, hundreds of evacuees, forced from their homes by the historic storm that slammed into south Florida with Category 4-5 winds and second-story storm surges, and prompted emergency measures along both the Gulf and southern Atlantic coasts, poured into Columbus over the weekend. As of Monday, some 600 people were still sheltered at the Columbus Civic Center, and more than 6,500 still taking refuge in shelters across the state.
“We have thousands of pounds of donated goods, materials, bottled water, toiletries, and blankets,” Lawrence said. “We’re just so grateful, and we want to thank everybody.”
In in an effort that is no doubt representative of similar drives in other faith communities, homes and civic organizations across the greater Valley area, members of St. Luke Methodist Church in Columbus gathered cleaning materials for people who will need to begin cleaning storm-ravaged homes, possessions and clothes, while children filled plastic bags with invaluable personal hygiene items.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson praised local citizens not only for their volunteer work and humanitarian spirit (“Rarely in a crisis such as this has there been such an ‘over abundance’ of generosity”), but also for their common sense in taking maximum precautions and minimal risks: “We had very few storm-related injuries as a result.”
It escaped very few people’s notice, and certainly not the mayor’s, that Hurricane Irma’s biggest impact came on September 11 — a date on which, for the most somber of historic reasons, we honor the courage and sacrifice of first responders and public safety workers in general. On this Sept. 11, instead of receiving ceremonial acclaim, they were braving the rain, gale-force winds and flying debris, because that’s what they do.
What is needed now is more volunteer help — United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley is asking for people’s aid in recovery and clean-up efforts, and you can still volunteer at redcross.org — and money. Physical donations are still helpful, but at this point in the recovery process, money is more flexible: “With money, we can buy everything we need,” Lawrence said, “and we can use that money for the next time there is a disaster.”
As Michael L. Davis of the Dallas Morning News wrote in a column published in our Monday print edition, the two important rules for helping people through disaster recovery are (1) If you don’t know what people need, give money; and (2) You don’t know what people need. Charitable organizations “have a clear idea about what is really needed” and can buy supplies more cheaply, and those needs change quickly and often.
Whatever those needs, this community came through when the crisis hit, and will keep doing so in its aftermath.