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Marcia Ford


Questions of Faith:

Why does God let bad things happen in the world?

Where do I look to find God in this world of tragedy and pain?


Life After Frances
Post-Hurricane Reflections from a Weary Floridian
by Marcia Ford

Since August, those of us who live in Florida have developed a whole new lexicon, one composed of never-before paired-up words: hurricane fatigue, FEMA frustration, generator envy. And we discovered a whole calendar, one that replaced August and September with Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. No one talks about Labor Day weekend this year; we talk about Frances. We don’t remember dates; we recall events through strange-sounding but universally understood phrases like “right after Charley” or “between Frances and Jeanne.” Time measurement has been reduced to name-calling.

Compared to many of our fellow Central Florida neighbors, our family had little to complain about. We lost countless trees, the roof on our carport, shingles on the roof of the house, and electrical power for more days than I can remember, but all that paled in comparison to the losses suffered by hundreds of thousands whose homes or cars or businesses were destroyed.

Undaunted, I nevertheless managed to find something to complain about as I surveyed the damage done by the particularly reckless Frances. “Do you realize we can see all our neighbors’ houses now?” I asked my husband in what was more a tirade than a bona fide question. The loss of so many trees and so much vegetation had destroyed our privacy, our natural defense against prying eyes and those oh-so-bothersome requests that neighbors can sometimes make when you happen to make eye contact across the fence.

Had I voiced that complaint outside instead of inside our house, there’s no doubt that a prying, bothersome neighbor or two would have heard it, because Frances had left an eerie silence in her wake. The absence of the familiar sounds of the central air turning on or the water pump kicking in or the pool pump cycling off made for a somewhat unsettling atmosphere. It didn’t help matters when the silence was broken by the hum of one neighbor’s generator. As we sweltered in the 95-degree heat without even a bucket of water to cool us off, the last thing we needed was an auditory reminder that the family across the fence was probably sitting in the lap of air-conditioned luxury, sipping freshly brewed iced tea, laughing at the image of Frances heading toward Georgia on the Weather Channel, and taking turns enjoying a refreshing and much-needed shower. Yes, generator envy did stimulate my imagination.

But soon enough my imagination flat-lined. The neighbor’s generator fell silent, one of many victims of a storm-induced gas shortage. The few service stations that still had power quickly ran out of gasoline, as long lines of cars reminiscent of the Carter administration drained their tanks dry. Meanwhile, many stations that had full tanks beneath the ground were unable to get the gasoline out because they had no electricity. It was a Catch-22 situation that kept many areas of Florida paralyzed for days, if not weeks.

Frances had clearly leveled not just the landscape but also the playing field, as generators ran out of fuel, hurricane-proof homes filled up with water, and both the privileged and the underprivileged were prevented from leaving their homes or neighborhoods by downed power lines and fallen trees. Like the other four named storms, Frances turned out to be no respecter of persons.

Tragedy is said to bring out the best and the worst in people, and that proved to be true during the C through J segment of this year’s hurricane season. The news --at least so I hear, from those who actually had television service during that time--was filled with reports of price-gouging and vandalism and fights breaking out in long lines of weary residents just wanting a bag of ice or a bag of food or even a bag of sand to keep the rising floodwaters at bay. But that’s not what I witnessed. What I saw were incredibly patient people, kinder than usual, cutting everyone else some slack, making actual eye contact with each other, and smiling empathetically even though they had no way of knowing whether one person’s loss was greater than theirs, or whether another person’s life had been turned upside down or only mildly disrupted. None of that mattered; in the wake of so much upheaval, we had become a kinder, gentler people.

Life has since resumed a veneer of normalcy. Everyone has power, the gas stations have actual gas, and people are free to be crabby again if they feel like it. But it’s hard to exercise the freedom to be crabby when the people you encounter continue to look so tired, so defeated, so beaten down--and when you realize you look just like they do. We Americans may be a resilient people, but we do have a breaking point. And we Floridians came much too close to ours this year.

Two weeks after the last storm blew through, I ran into a casual friend I’ll call Beth. We smiled and hugged and began to swap storm stories. At first she laughed and told stories about the challenges of bunking for a week with another family. The longer she talked, though, the weaker her voice became. I recognized the syndrome immediately--and I knew I was losing her. Her mouth kept moving, her voice kept uttering intelligible words, but her mind had retreated to a private, shadowy place, a place in her memory where the sound of Frances’ winds would never be completely silenced. Her voice eventually trailed off to a near-whisper, and with a polite “good to see you,” Beth walked away, lost in remembered pain. I wondered if she would even recall our encounter later on--or if, instead, the mere thought of the storms was strong enough to erase later memories. I tend to think it was.

Sometime between Frances and Ivan, a friend asked this question: “Is God mad at us Floridians or what?” My answer at the time was “what”--in other words, it’s just weather, not the wrath of a vengeful God. My answer today, though, would be a different one: It was more than just weather; it was an opportunity to discover more about ourselves than maybe we wanted to know. Did we face the storms with fear or with faith? Were we concerned only about ourselves, or did we truly care about our neighbors’ welfare? And just how willing were we to share whatever we had with those who needed it? As long as we refuse to wallow in self-condemnation, reflecting on questions like that can bring us closer to becoming the person we’ve wanted to be all along.

As for me, well, I figure I’ve made great strides toward becoming that person if I can just continue to be a bit more patient in long supermarket lines and a touch kinder to crabby people and a whole lot more grateful for the neighbors I’m able to see now. Most of all, though, I’m trusting God to show me how to help Beth-–and others-–fill up the empty places the storms left behind.

Copyright©2004 Marcia Ford


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