Hurricanes and the kindness of strangers

I did not live in Charleston in September 1989, but it doesn’t take long after moving here to have the date etched on your consciousness. It is the day the clock stopped and all the rules were rewritten,the day the setbacks and flood lines were redrawn, and the day that most people redefined their relationship with weather.

I lived in Virginia, and remember staring, perplexed, at a brilliant blue sky and waiting for the storm that proactively closed our schools… the storm that never materialized in our area, that laid waste to the coast of South Carolina. Before the days of Facebook and text messages which made disasters personal and immediate, we caught glimpses of long lines of people waiting for water. And that’s about all we really knew of Hugo, before moving to the Lowcountry.

We were fortunate to have a choice about where we live, and in 2003 we piled our three children in the car and headed south, trying on sailing towns. Reggie and I met as children on the North Shore of Long Island. My parents grew up on the coast of New Jersey. South Carolina felt like home right away. The historic village of Mount Pleasant called to us: the marshes felt like those we loved from the northeast, the picket fences and moss laden trees whispered promises of childhood magic. Stories of Hugo were still part of the daily vocabulary, and we began to get a sense of the enormity of that event. We met people who had spent a sleepless night wearing life jackets on their third floor, not knowing if the tide would ride up to that level in their house. We heard of power outages that lasted months, silence pierced by the endless sounds of chain saws, food and furnishings rotted and spoiled around on the street corners. Once, we would have planned to ride out a storm with a sense of adventure. After hearing the stories of raw fear, you plan to lock the windows, and pile the people and pets you love in a car. Our own home, standing since 1834, sheltered several neighbors through Hugo and its aftermath. But it’s the stories of the kindnesses of strangers that pull my heartstrings every time.

Our church sits on a spit of land at the North end of Sullivan’s Island, on a spot famous since colonial days, and was directly smashed by Hurricane Hugo. There are plenty of stories– of the communion silver found in the marsh, of the tent that the church family called home for two full years: in snow and rain and punishing heat and mosquitoes, of the broken bridge to the island. And then there is the story of the church in North Carolina who cooked a Thanksgiving dinner for each church family and drove it here in time for the holiday. And then they turned around and did the same thing with Christmas cookies.

There is the story of the town of McClellanville, which was humbled to find thirty eight trucks from Tom’s River, New Jersey. Trucks bearing food and water and clean clothes and cleaning supplies, stretching all along the only navigable roadways, all from the people in Toms River. McClellanville residents are currently mobilizing to see how they can help.

I was in New Jersey for a wedding the weekend before Sandy took aim at it. Walking up the steps to my Aunt and Uncle’s Little Silver house, I was struck immediately by the sense of coming home, even though I never actually lived there. Thanksgivings were often spent here, and we wandered the towns and beaches nearby, talking about which houses my parents had lived in, visiting old haunts. Monmouth county looks a lot like Mount Pleasant.

Before and After Picture of NJ. Photo credit to

Now, the scale of Sandy’s devastation is all but impossible to understand. I found (and find) myself glued to the news on one hand and Facebook on the other, looking for photos of places I have loved and for news of friends and family. And while my heart breaks a little each time, I am also inspired hourly by the drive and the kindnesses of strangers to help one another. And I am so grateful for cousins in some of the hardest hit areas of New Jersey who are lending power, collecting items, organizing efforts to help, and putting their commitment to their neighbors into action, right where it is needed. Sending a check is the least I can do, but I do it knowing the money will be used, now, to make a difference right away. And in a few weeks, when the immediacy has faded from the national media, I’ll still be thinking of ways I can help. Maybe they will need blankets or socks, maybe some turkeys, maybe someone to tell their story. Maybe you know of a Charleston/New Jersey/Long Island initiative to send relief in some way– feel free to share. And maybe a cookie will be helpful, too.

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