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Editorial: Gathered by storms, shared purpose
If politics show worst in us, hurricane rescue, recovery can bring out the best
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Robin Collinson and her husband Michael stand outside the Clermont Venue on Tuesday where severe weather from Hurricane Irma caused damage to the front of the facility in Clermont. The property was purchased by Robin Collinson and her mother Phyllis Henson four years ago, and they have renovated it over time. - photo by David Barnes

Tragedy and triumph often go hand in hand in life, no more so than when disaster strikes and brings people together with a shared sense of purpose amid suffering.

This was evident in the past two weeks when two major hurricanes slammed two different coastal areas of the U.S., devastating Texas, Florida, the Caribbean and parts of our state. In each case, residents came together to provide aid to their neighbors in need, including tales of heroic rescues and others reaching out to help victims of the storms.

It was ironic that Tropical Storm Irma made her way through North Georgia on Sept. 11, the 16th anniversary of a man-spawned disaster that brought Americans together like no other since World War II. Even as remembrances for the terrorist attacks were held in New York, Washington and elsewhere, Georgians were sheltered in place as driving rains and 60 mph winds brought down trees and power lines. Many of those hunkered down included Floridians who had fled the worst of the storm and were bunking with friends and family or filling area hotels.

In the hours after the winds calmed, the same stories emerged of nameless souls with chain saws hacking paths out of homes, of others opening their homes with power to those without and everyone pitching in to help.

We learned of police officers, deputies and firefighters who worked through the day and night to handle emergency calls despite wondering if their own homes and families were secure. Behind the first responders were the power crews working long hours without rest to restore power to thousands.

In the days to follow, Hall County schools opened middle schools to those without power and offered hot meals and showers. And Pilgrim’s Pride poultry company in Gainesville donated ice to residents without power through the weekend. Meanwhile, nonprofits deployed full efforts as well, the Georgia Mountain Food Bank turning its attention to distributing food and produce to those who were running short of supplies.

Neighbor helping neighbor, not because they have to but because, in times of crisis, we still know how to pull together. 

All of this begs the question: Why can’t we unite like this as one when the winds are calm and times are less turbulent? 

Those with power could see why as they watched cable news networks that split their storm coverage with the usual ongoing scrums in Washington. Political divides make for lively debates on TV, radio and the internet; conflict always warrants attention, like rubberneckers eyeballing an accident. 

But if nothing else, the response to true tragedy should put such bickering in perspective a bit more and show how the winds of a hurricane can even the playing field of our differences. Too often, our lives, homes and safety are taken for granted until tragedies strike and make debates over taxes, social issues and political campaigns seem less important. 

Politics is not life itself, just a piece of it, and not as important as the mass media that feeds off it makes it out to be. When you take that out of the equation, we have more in common than we realize, especially in troubled times.

The storms did not discriminate on race, religion or lifestyles when they struck, tearing apart mobile homes, apartment buildings and mansions. Yet even in the storms’ aftermath, partisan arguments rage on, whether it’s over the impact of climate change on weather, which remains hard to quantify, or public funding for cleanups efforts.

On the latter, it’s clear two major storms and their devastating effects will have a profound impact on the U.S. economy for some time to come. Fuel refineries and supplies were hampered in the Gulf of Mexico by Hurricane Harvey, and though prices only rose a bit during a blip in supplies, the long-term picture is unclear. In Florida, the Georgia coast and the Caribbean, the vital tourism industry will take a severe hit as residents rebuild without the influx of visitors’ dollars to fund their recovery. Agriculture also suffered a blow from the loss of crops across the region, while shipping of goods was delayed in ports hit by the storm. 

And many small businesses that are barely squeaking by can’t afford to shut their doors for days or weeks; some may not survive.

This all in addition to the massive costs facing insurance companies and individuals paying out of pocket. For many, it’s double and triple jeopardy as the bills mount.

The public costs may be even greater, and will be borne by us all. Already, Congress has passed a relief package for Harvey of nearly $8 billion, which is just a start; similar legislation will be forthcoming for Irma. The final bill will be staggering for federal, state and local governments, reaching hundreds of billions of dollars. Though we can’t afford to write blank checks, we also can’t play politics and skimp on helping those whose lives have been turned upside down.

After Harvey, it was easy to find snarky comments on op-ed pages and social media slamming “anti-government” red states like Texas for seeking help from the feds. Yet there’s a big difference between advocating small, effective government and preferring anarchy. The main role of government is preserving public safety and civility; tackling needs after a disaster is a prime function of the public sector, like fighting crime and putting out fires, and no one in their right mind believes Washington shouldn’t play a major role in the recovery.

As local residents pitching in have shown, this is no time for petty squabbles. Americans need to put aside the “red state-blue state” bitterness and agree on the need to help those without homes or livelihoods by rallying our collective will and wherewithal. It’s what we do for each other when the need is there. Because there, but for the grace of God, go us all.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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