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What It Was Like Living Through Irma at a Shelter

Concerned young people and adults often ask, “Why do people do genealogy? Why are they so interested in the past?

Well, having survived Hurricane Irma in a coastal town in Florida, I can scratch the surface of a response. Those of us who do genealogy, as I discussed in my previous articles, are interested in learning from our ancestors and from all our social history. We try to learn more about how our ancestors survived. Survival, planning for the present and the future – and helping others, are the focus of a forward-looking article I wrote a few weeks ago about how scientists in 2015 said computer projections predicted a series of once-in-century storms along the U.S. Gulf Coast, from Houston to Tampa to Miami, and in other parts of the world. So I make the following observations, having lived through one of the storms.

A few years ago, when I wrote about how my own ancestors survived wars and natural disasters, how they planted survival foods, and ran ahead of militias that chased them to kill them, I asked my father how they knew when to plant in wilderness farms so the crops would grow quickly. He knew, I did not. So I reflect on the saying, all politics is local, and add, skills and knowledge are local. In a disaster, the first line of helpers is local. Helpful media is local, because until external help arrives, survival rests of the strengths of family, neighbors and local authorities. In a disaster, victims move around without modern transportation. Have natural foods or light without gas or electric. Travel with food and water for the next few days. Stay clean with limited water supply. Share with neighbors and assist each other. I assisted Houston with money, then I found that I needed help lifting and carrying things, and moving from place to a safe place ahead of a storm.

(A note: Ahead of Hurricane Irma, friends called to say, “Isn’t it good that you are in New York?” No, I was not in New York, because having survived as a Lower Manhattan Tribeca resident, covered in dust from head to foot on the morning of 9/11, I still try to avoid the city on the 11th –-

my form of peace of mind. It is ironic that this year, on September 11th, I was sitting in a room at an evacuation center, in a high school in a coastal town in Florida. It is even more ironic that soon after the television went out, after a breakfast of MRE packages, as we hunkered down, I turned on my transistor radio, and heard the announcer ask for a moment of silence in commemoration of those who died on 9/11. I announced the moment of silence to the dozen new neighbors with whom I shared the chairs and floor of the high school’s science lab in an evacuation center, sheltering hundreds.)

I am grateful to the students and teachers who volunteered to help at this evacuation center, to the Red Cross, the first responders from the sheriff’s officers to the National Guard, Emergency Management workers, nurses, doctors and FEMA workers who organized to help. When I was young, when I did communications management training consulting at Fortune 500 companies, from Exxon to Pepsi to Hormel, we organized the training workshops around a basic principle of leadership and problem-solving: leaders manage people, tasks and projects. So I remind us now to first provide a secure place for volunteers and first responders to house their family, so they are free to help others in the community. Local officials, from law enforcement to emergency workers to school administrators demonstrate leadership skills. This is something we learn from ancestors and early leaders who were skilled in logistics and fashioning food, shelter and something out of nothing. I met skilled locals during Irma.

The principal of the school where I evacuated led people. She motivated and inspired her teachers and students to volunteer. They did. The teachers manned the registration desk and comforted new arrivals. The students directed traffic in the parking lot in the rain, and helped evacuees lug luggage and packages of water, food and bedding to the first and second floors. The school administrators coordinated food service and janitorial maintenance with other agencies.

The assistant principal, Ronald Bruno, demonstrated logistics skills on par with any I saw at the most complex corporation. In a disaster such as Hurricane Irma (and I am sure in other hurricanes), when a school is designated as an evacuation center, it is the school’s staff that handles the logistics. The outside help arrives later. Local and national leaders and major media advise people to evacuate, get out of danger, and go to shelters, but it is the staff of volunteers manning the centers who have the logistics skills to organize the people and keep them safe.

What I saw was transportation was arranged for those who arrived, but once the storm passed, the assistant principal took charge and organized the orderly return of evacuees who did not have cars to return to their homes. He organized transportation on school busses and managed a confusing mix of terrified people who had no idea what damaging conditions they were returning to. The staff here and at other schools volunteered, coordinated meals and cleanup for thousands of people in a school building, designed to teach students.

Students who document that they assisted in these disasters should have scholarships and job opportunities. Teachers and school administrators and their families who volunteered should be promoted and compensated.

So I share a few observations about us, the population. First, a few funny notes and some reminders. As modern people, we have lost our survival skills, even without knowing it. The first morning at the shelter when county officials, local volunteers and national guardsmen and guardswomen switched from delicious meals in the cafeteria to packaged MRE meals, I saw and heard new friends and neighbors complain about the food. To accommodate all, the officials served military-style nutritious rations, of a granola bar, protein bar, peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a small box of juice. Over and over again, I heard my fellow survivors say, “Where’s the coffee? I need coffee. I can’t start my day without coffee. No coffee? I need coffee.”

So Starbucks and our expensive coffee makers have made us soft. I am a tea drinker, so I was fine drinking the bottled water I brought with me.

Later that day, as we collected our packaged meal ahead of the storm, one lady on line asked for ice. The guardsman who handed out the juice apologized and explained that they didn’t have ice. She insisted that she needed ice. He took her aside, away from the long line of people waiting to get a few calories before they returned to the safety of the rooms in the shelter. I must admit, she seemed disoriented.

On the lunch line, I talked with the person in line in front of me, Marilyn from Connecticut, about how prepared we are as modern people to handle disasters and emergencies. We talked about survival. I told her I brought some boiled eggs, but without my computer, I had no way of determining how long they would keep, unrefrigerated. I purchased a portable radio and solar-powered lights after surviving Hurricane Sandy in New York. The radio charges the phone, but I evacuated so quickly, I did not bring any of these with me. But Marilyn had brought emergency survival gear she said her friend, Chris, a survivalist taught her how to design. So I asked her to describe a few I can share with readers. I will share her words at the end of the article.

Disasters, from manmade disasters like 9/11 to natural disasters like Katrina, Harvey and Irma render all of us more spiritual and more in touch. We also meet people we do not ordinarily meet. After the storm, as we left, I could not manage my luggage and the cooler with peanut butter, apple sauce, tuna and water, and the other tote bag with oranges, apples, Roma tomatoes, Kirby cucumbers, Belgium endives, gluten-free bagels, so I walked to the top of the staircase on the second floor and waited, wondering. Many minutes passed. Then a gentleman I had seen mornings at 5 a.m. when I walked down the hallway to freshen up in the restroom, approached me and asked if I needed help. Sleeping on the floor, I had kept my regular schedule of going to sleep early and waking early, so he must have seen something in my face he recognized. I may have reminded him of a female in his family. I told him I needed help with the bags I left and gave him the room number. Several minutes passed, and I thought, ah well, if he takes the bags, it’s just food, water and sleeping gear.

He arrived through the doors, my bags in his hand. He is Ray V. As he helped me down the stairs from the second floor, he said he is in rehab. When we reached the first floor landing, I reached in my handbag to give him a gratuity. He said, “No. Please don’t tip me. I am here to help.” He looked resilient, and he said he is available to do odd jobs. I do not have odd jobs, but I have passed his information around the town to those I know who have odd jobs available.

Survival skills and working together helped our ancestors in the past and can help us now.

From Marilyn:

My survivalist friend, Chris, taught me a few techniques useful in emergencies. He taught me how to preserve hard-boiled eggs that will remain edible for many weeks, perhaps even months without refrigeration. Start with very fresh eggs. Boil the eggs and while they are still slightly warm, roll each one in the wax from a small tea-light candle, slowly, making sure each egg is completely coated. Then carefully place each one on a baking rack to dry and cool completely. When cool, place each egg back in the carton. Store in the refrigerator till needed if you can. They are now, hermetically sealed and will last a long time.

Chris also taught me how to make long life lights using two batteries of any size. Reverse them and bind them together tightly with tape and thick rubber bands. He made the rubber bands out of bike inner tubes. He then took an LED Christmas light, expose the end of the wire, and slip the wire under the terminals. On the opposite end, he slipped a piece of foil to finish the connection. Each little light will last about a year! If you use larger batteries, and a larger Christmas light, it will be even brighter.

(Marilyn had one of Chris’s little battery-powered Christmas lights with her. The light shone brightly, just as it would have on a Christmas tree.) She said, Chris, her survivalist, made her promise not to share these tips about the light unless she mentioned that Jesus is the light of the world. I had packed two palm-sized LED lights, one wrapped in plastic, in case I had to use it outside in the dark in the rain.

Whether it is Chris, Marilyn, Ray V. or evacuees I saw at the shelter reading spiritual texts as the storm touched down, people remember their own skills, how to help others, how to fashion living supplies out of nothing, and how to be spiritual in the midst of a disaster.

Stay safe. Stay skilled and helpful everyone.