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A Hurricane Taught My Neighborhood How Not To Waste A Good Crisis


It’s August 24, 1992. My family and I are huddled in the bathtub in the middle of the night, watching the bathroom door racking in its frame as the whole house twists and bends in response to the 165 m.p.h. winds outside.

Our neighborhood is getting the worst Hurricane Andrew can throw at us. We are in the north eye wall of the storm, where the winds are strongest and we get no relief since the eye is south of us. It is estimated that the storm propagated hundreds of tornadoes at twice the power of the hurricane.

The next morning we and our neighbors on the cul-de-sac crept out to inspect the damage. It was horrific. Trees were toppled, vehicles smashed, power lines down, roofs trashed or missing, and debris was everywhere.

It is impossible to describe the feeling of standing in a nearly unrecognizable scene that just yesterday was your home and neighborhood, so I won’t attempt it. But I can tell you what happened next: we became a neighborhood in a true sense.

We’d lived there for years, but after the storm met for the first time our neighbors directly across the street and several more in both directions. A group formed in the middle of the street as we compared damages and resources. Does anyone have a working phone? Gas stove? Generator? Chainsaw? It didn’t help to have a working vehicle because of the downed trees and utility poles, and a sea of debris.

Once we determined our resources, we got to work. The first priority was to fix leaking roofs. I had a huge roll of hot-pink polyethylene sheeting left over from a project (don’t ask). Another plentiful material was fencing planks. Since we were a “covenant community,” everyone had a fence using the same type of planks. So they were everywhere, except on fences.

We devised a system of overlapping layers of plastic held down with planks that would shed water to the roof’s edge. It worked perfectly, even against Miami’s torrential rains. By the time everyone was dried in, we had five houses cloaked in brilliant Day-Glo pink. I’d like to think our block was a navigation aid to the crews of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster supply planes continually roaring overhead on their approach to a nearby air base.

Over the next several days, we had assembled a communal dining room in the middle of the street, complete with an oven fashioned out of cinder blocks. We made pizza and focaccia by burning . . . fence planks.

I had a working phone and, more important, an employee who lived in Ft. Lauderdale, which was not as hard hit. For the next two weeks I’d phone in food and drink orders and he, no longer a graphic designer for the duration, became a contraband smuggler. He’d collect everything on the day’s order, load it into his truck along with huge chests of ice, and deliver it by skirting nearly to the Everglades to elude the National Guard blockade.

We lived like royalty in the middle of a city street. Everyone’s kids played together, and we adults, exhausted and sunburned from cleaning up the incredible mess, prepared gourmet meals for the whole group and got hammered on Pisco Sours (we had an Argentine neighbor). Then we’d start again the next morning. Hard labor is a good way to work off a hangover.

There were no fights or squabbling, at least among the adults, and we worked together on each other’s houses and yards. A natural org chart sprang up on each task, depending on who had the experience for the work.

Inside of two weeks, we had cleaned up the entire street and repaired everything we could. We even stood up a couple of 30-foot palm trees using a human-powered, A-frame crane made of fence posts and a tow chain.

The Covid-19 situation reminds me of that time, when ingenuity and hard work, with neighbors cooperating for the good of all, provided a chance to bond with others and witness the best of people on glorious display. Although it will be more difficult under social distancing, I hope that spirit is alive now as we face this national crisis.

Look around you— someone needs help. Be selfless. It’s good for you.