I lived in Mississippi for five years and Alabama for one year. I never thought I’d have to come to Indiana to live through a hurricane. Now I don’t want to sound hyperbolic or like anything we’ve gone through here in southern Indiana compares to the situation of those in Houston and along the gulf coast. I don’t know the difference between 70 mph winds and 120 mph winds, and I’d like to maintain that ignorance for the rest of my life. We had no rain and no flooding and no storm surge. Just the wind. And that was scary enough.
In southern Indiana, we’re not sure what a wind advisory means. Some of us saw the wind advisory ahead of time. But for a lot of other folks, the power was already out when the wind started blowing, and then it was too late. A lot of folks just expected rain, and perhaps that explains the fact that quite a few of us were out strolling about or driving in the 70 mph winds. It’s not smart, but you have to understand that it looked nothing like the storms that we’re taught to be afraid of in the Midwest. The sun was shining here until well after the worst of the winds had passed. The sky was not pea green the way it is before a tornado. There was no thunder, no lightning. Just wind. “How dangerous,” some of us probably thought, “can just wind be?” Well, pretty dangerous, it turns out. I was chased down the street by a large piece of metal that had flown off a building. One anonymous woman in Madison has roofing-grade glue in her hair that blew off a building that was being repaired. We had no deaths here, thankfully, and just a few injuries, glue-hair aside. But the wind was plenty dangerous to the trees and the roofs of our houses.
Just the other day in my environmental sociology class, we were reading about community and consumption, trying to use sociology to figure out why Americans in particular buy so much shit that we have absolutely no need for. One of the explanations floated out there is that we buy to fill the huge gaps in our lives that are left by the loss of community. We don’t talk to each other, we don’t bowl together, as Robert Putnam would point out. We don’t have time or energy to do much besides collapse in front of the t.v., but it’s interesting to see what happens in a small town when the t.v. isn’t there anymore. This is nothing that other people in crisis situations haven’t noticed before, and the chapter we had read ended with accounts from flood victims who having lost everything, realize what’s really important.
Well, we didn’t lose everything, but we did lose our televisions, computers, and DVD players. Some of us lost water, and some of us are still without both. And it was interesting to see what happens in a small town when the power goes out. People come out of their houses. They sit on the front porch, and if they don’t have a front porch, they sit on the sidewalk. They wander around town and they talk to each other, and they ask complete strangers if they’re okay. Everyone goes to the local café that happens to be open and tells their stories about the storm. Friends begin to call each other, and those with power offer the use of their homes to those without. The social fabric of the community, which perhaps is always there, suddenly becomes visible, and you realize that people actually do care about each other. Why do we need a hurricane for this?
I don’t think this is unique to southern Indiana. I think for as many stories the media showed us of looting in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there were probably as many stories of people helping each other in whatever way they could. Big cities don’t turn people into looters, but abject poverty and a feeling of abandonment do. This storm found its way up to Indiana just a few days after the 7 year anniversary of Sept. 11th, and since Pearl Harbor, that’s about the biggest disaster that’s hit the United States that wasn’t largely of our own making. Hurricane Katrina we did to ourselves, to our own citizens, both through the complete neglect of our inner cities and cities in general, and through the more specific neglect of the levies and destruction of the wetlands. Our foreign policy certainly played a part in bringing about 9/11, but is still less our responsibility than Katrina. What did we do in the wake of that disaster?
Now granted, those of us outside of New York, D.C. and Pennsylvania were largely unaffected, and so it’s not quite the same as walking outside of your house and seeing your neighbor’s car or home crushed by a tree and volunteering to bring the chainsaw to help. There’s no brush to clear, and you couldn’t offer to feed someone without power or water for the evening. But the feeling was much the same, even if the rest of us, unlike New Yorkers, couldn’t look out or windows and see the actual effects of 9/11. We could feel them, and we believed they had affected us, and as a sociologist, I believe that is what mattered. At that moment, the fabric of the very large community that can sometimes unite large numbers of us together as Americans suddenly became more visible. We really did love New York, and we wanted to help, even if we couldn’t all head off for New York at that moment. And this fabric which holds us together, even though it can also often exclude vast numbers of people, is invisible and unimportant most of the time. Sometimes it motivates a few individuals to do exceptional things, like agree to go to some foreign place and die. But it lies dormant most of the time, and so what a rare moment when suddenly almost everyone in the country feels it, this community and this need to do something. What a rare moment when we suddenly see how fragile our lives are, how empty are many of the things we do in a day are, and how very connected we are to each other. What did we do with that rare moment?
Well, you know the answer. We decided to go and kill people. To build walls. To chip away at our liberties and freedom as citizens. We decided to go with fear rather than hope. And you can make communities based on fear, but there has to be someone on the outside to be afraid of. Hope is inclusive, but fear is not. Fear leaves us largely powerless, unless you’re the one telling everyone else what to be afraid of.
And now in southern Indiana we can say we’ve experienced a hurricane. And maybe that’s not new. What do I know about weather history? But some of us are beginning to suspect it won’t be the last hurricane we experience for a while. And there’s no direct causal link between our decisions after 9/11 and Ike showing up in the Midwest, but we could have made decisions after 9/11 that would have made future Ike’s a little less likely. We could have decided to mount a nationwide campaign to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, thus removing ourselves from the politics of the Middle East and in the bargain, reducing our contribution to global climate change and the stronger hurricanes it’s likely to produce. We didn’t go that way. And in the wake of our brush with Ike, I’m wondering which direction will we go now? As this frighteningly important election looms almost less than a month ahead and continues to be hijacked by personalities rather than issues, I wonder which direction? What will we choose this time? Fear or hope?