Hurricane Irene: Not even close to epilogue

Now comes the hard part.

From North Carolina to New Hampshire, Hurricane Irene leveled homes, destroyed communities, and even took some lives. Outside of being alive, none of us can really offer a true silver lining to this black cloud of rain-drenched despair.

I was supposed to fly to New Hampshire on Friday, but decided to stay in Chicago. My friends and family in New York did not have such luxuries. As of now my friends in Manhattan and Nassau County are safe. My family in Staten Island is safe. Yet phone lines in Suffolk County were down, and those people I care about are unaccounted for.

I lived 18 years in Suffolk County, and remembered Hurricane Gloria in 1985. We had no power for 10 days because the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) was terrible even by agency standards. A quarter of a century later, and the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA, a slightly less ugly cousin of LILCO) naturally sees hundreds of thousands of people without power on their watch. It is convenient to blame the storms, but virtually every time it rained in Suffolk County my home suffered a brownout or blackout. Enough already. Can’t anybody in Suffolk County turn the lights back on like everybody else can?

Most of my family is in Brooklyn. The ones I care about are fine. They live in Coney Island, and Coney Island got belted.

Days like this make me wish I could just retreat into a log cabin and isolate myself from everything. Then I remember that I like people. Then I lament the fact that I like people. My speaking career takes me all around America, and I have made friends everywhere. I cannot call everybody, and I have no way of knowing if people who mean more to me than they will ever know are safe.

This is a hint people. If you know me, and you can tolerate my existence, let me know you are safe and sound. Yes, of course I am being selfish. I can empathize for complete strangers while being most concerned about friends and loved ones.

To make matters worse, “safe” is a very fluid term. People may have survived Hurricane Irene itself, but the flood nightmares are just beginning.

The worst aspect of natural disasters beyond the physical damage is the psychological toll magnified by the utter helplessness that we mere mortals are reduced to. We can fight terrorists and kill them. We can sue them in courts. We can freeze their bank accounts. Arguing with God has not worked since John Denver tried it in the movies. In real life, God wins and the questioner gets a padded cell with white rubber walls.

For Atheists, acts of nature are the same. Try arguing with a tree. If the tree responds, you are insane and lose the argument of life no matter who wins that particular argument.

While ordinary people are suffering, some politicians will try to use this to their advantage. Right now some of them are meeting with pollsters to tell them how and when to respond. “Never let a crisis go to waste” is a recent mantra. If I hear the current president tell us that this crisis would have been worse if not for his intervention, my head will explode.

I want to believe in the best of people from a moral and an intellectual standpoint, but it is easy to lose heart when some dolt asks New Jersey Governor Chris Christie when the casinos will reopen. It is one thing if you own the casino or depend on it for a paycheck. If you are worried about playing the slots, please do not reproduce because idiocy is exponential.

While there is very little optimism in this situation, one message I want to communicate to people is not to feel guilty if they are unable to directly help. Don’t beat yourselves up.

When I was eighteen and a freshman in college, several of my classmates felt guilty because they could not leave Los Angeles and get on a plane to Israel to defend it against scud missiles from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. My dad put it in perspective. He said, “Everybody has a function in life. The soldiers in Israel need to fight. Your mother and I have to put food on the table to feed you. Our function in life is to fulfill our responsibilities. We are going to work. Your functions are to go to school and get good grades.”

(I did one out of two. I showed up. My grades were adequate.)

Would I like to fly from Chicago to New York today? Absolutely. Yet my responsibilities take me to Cleveland, South Carolina, and Iowa first. New York is next week. We can’t be everywhere, and we cannot help others by neglecting our own responsibilities.

So to those thinking of beating yourselves up, there is nothing you could have done to prevent this tragedy. Natural disasters are not preventable and often not even predictable.

The best things we can do at times like this are so incredibly cliche, and even mentioning them borders on banality. Yet sometimes the obvious is still the best course of action.

Call your loved ones. Donate money if you can. Donate time if you can. Donate blood if you can.

The key words “if you can” always apply because none of us are Superman. We may be more than mere specks in the universe, but perhaps not much more. We will do what we can, and look in the mirror privately later.

Optimistic pep talks are for football games. Real life does not need cheerleaders. It needs doers.

(Let me backtrack. If you inspire people with your words into action, do it. Bishop T.D. Jakes was magnificent after the Virginia Tech shooting. If your words are to please yourself, keep them to yourself.)

The rest of the world is not going to help us even though they would barely exist without American aid and comfort. Once again, it is up to the Americans to handle things. This time all Americans would agree the cause is worth it, because it is internal. It is us.

Our neighbors are hurting, some like they have never hurt before.

So let’s help them because we know they would help us. The America I know and love is proof of this.

Time to roll up the sleeves and get to work. We can do this.

Time for me to try and make more phone calls between plane flights.

To my relatives and friends I still cannot get ahold of, I offer love and prayers that you and your families are all right. Call when you can.

To the remaining 300 million members of my extended American family, God bless.


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