What It Means To Survive A Hurricane

When white folks are depicted taking food or items from stores, they are portrayed as survivors.
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<p>A street in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Irma ravaged buildings and knocked trees into overhead cables.</p>

A street in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Irma ravaged buildings and knocked trees into overhead cables.

Jose Jimenez/Getty Images

It’s never a good feeling to lock the door to your home and not know when, if ever, you can really return.

At present my husband, my 81-year-old father and I are hunkered down in a hotel in central Florida. Our home in Miami is in the path for a direct hit from Hurricane Irma; the storm may follow us to where we are, causing us to consider running again. We are luckier than most in that we are able to leave town and not head to a shelter. Hurricane shelters, contrary to how one sheriff in particular portrays them, are not centers of crime and assault. They are literally buildings (often schools) in safer areas that allow you to lay a blanket on the floor until the danger is over. A shelter is safe but not at all comfortable.

Many of my friends have chosen to stay put in their homes. There are many reasons why folks do not leave. Some can’t afford the crazy airline prices out of town; others worry that it is too late to leave, and don’t want to get caught in the storm due to traffic jams on the major highways.

Recently, it has come to light that some in the media show great disparities in how they report the aftermath of hurricane, based on race. Many of us reflect back to Hurricane Katrina, where there were pictures of residents doing whatever they needed to do to survive. Unfortunately, when white folks were depicted taking food or items from stores, they were portrayed as survivors. When people of color did the same, they were portrayed as looters.

Here is some perspective. I survived Hurricane Wilma in Miami. I will be clear: it was nowhere near as bad as Hurricane Andrew or the devastation that Katrina brought to Louisiana. But nonetheless, I hunkered down during the storm. For close to a month afterwards, I had no power. The day after the storm passes is the closest thing to an apocalypse on earth. Roads are impassable, power lines are down and all sense of normalcy is lost. The streets are silent. It is the most eerie experience that one can have.

Let’s look at what this means. There’s no power, so your refrigerator does not work. If you have an electric stove, that’s no longer an option. The only thing that works is a barbecue fueled by propane or charcoal. Anything that was in your refrigerator is now spoiled. Hopefully you were able to stock up on canned goods. You will be living off of a diet of anything in a can.

By the way, if the stores reopen, your ATM card won’t work because there’s no power. In the aftermath of Wilma I learned this the hard way. I ran out of cash; luckily the bar down the street had a backup generator which allowed them to have ice as well as the ability to swipe cards. I worked out a deal with some friends: they bought me food and I bought them drinks. Another set of friends had a barbecue. We walked a bit of a distance with whatever food we had and made the most of it.

This leads to the next reality ― transportation. Do you want to get gas to go somewhere? Even if you can get through the debris-littered road, the gas stations have not had deliveries, so that’s not an option.

All of this is assuming the best case scenario where you did not have to evacuate. Evacuation does not mean you grab your fancy set of luggage and walk out the door. When you evacuate, you literally grab whatever you can carry and run with easily. The things that come to mind are your birth certificate, your Social Security card, photos of deceased relatives that you cannot part with and maybe a change of clothes. Packing up food is not practical.

Once you get to the shelter, you are now in a position of waiting for the goodwill of others. Keeping in mind that the roads are impassable, you can’t just roll up to the grocery and get more food. Even if you could get there, the stores are closed because all of the staff members are also battling the hurricane. You’re waiting for FEMA or someone to airlift food to you. Literally. So under those circumstances, what is one to do? Your children are hungry, you’re at the verge of starvation, What do you do?

You do what you need to do to survive.

There is a bright line distinction between taking food/clothing in an emergency and just stealing because you want a new purse or car parts. I don’t condone criminal activity as a general premise, but survival after a natural disaster is a mitigating circumstance.

So a note to not only the media, but to those who do not know what the hurricane aftermath brings – don’t judge. Do not judge unless you’ve walked a mile in a hurricane survivor’s shoes. And be fair in your portrayal ― all races face the same challenge in the aftermath of a disaster. Mother Nature does not discriminate. Self-preservation is, and will always be, the law of nature.

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