It’s approaching the peak of hurricane season again along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. A few years ago, when Matthew battered Florida as a powerful Category 2 hurricane, God in his providence allowed the storm to make an indelible mark – one that helped build community rather than tear it down.
Everyone in the neighborhood was busy making provisions the day before the storm hit. I, for one, decided to pick up a small bag of ice to prepare for the inevitable electrical outage. As I walked out the front door to my car, I heard a man’s voice call out, “Don’t you know there’s a hurricane coming?”
It was my neighbor across the street. He was standing on the sidewalk, smiling at me as his Miniature Schnauzer nearly left the ground every time it barked. Usually, we’d exchange a customary wave and then go our separate ways. But on this day, it was different. “Seems I heard something about a hurricane,” I answered dryly, smiling back. “Are you prepared yourself?”
“Yep. But if the storm strengthens, we’ll drive inland and get a hotel for a couple nights.” I assumed he was referring to himself and his Schnauzer, although I had seen a younger lady at his house from time to time. But before I could inquire further, he and man’s best friend had turned and started for their door.
To be honest, I’ve always liked big storms. I must have gotten it from my grandfather. I’ve never wanted anyone to suffer because of one, of course. It just seems that a big storm, and the excitement it produces, is enough to jostle us out of the ordinariness of daily life and make us more open to others. I’m certain that’s why my neighbor across the street, whose name I didn’t even know, had made the effort to speak to me that day.
Anyhow, that night the wind-whipped rain pelted the windows, making sleep difficult. When light came, my wife and I awoke and saw the wind had blown a large section of our six-foot wooden fence a third of the way down in our backyard. By this time, the electricity had gone out, and I watched in dismay for the next few hours as the wind attempted to snap the posts and flatten the fence altogether.
Like a good neighbor
It was early afternoon, as the eye of the hurricane approached, when I heard a knock at the front door. It was Les, my next-door neighbor whom I hadn’t spoken to in months. “Your fence is about to go,” he said urgently as I swung open the door. He was dripping wet and suited up in full raingear and rubber boots. “I can help you prop it up. Do you have any two-by-fours?”
In this weather? But then caught myself before actually saying it, recognizing his zeal to help and also surprised by it. “I don’t think so. Let me put on my shoes and we’ll see what we can use.”
When I came back, Les was digging through the dumpster across the street where a new house was under construction. I saw a board fly out. Then another. Then Les pulled himself up and over the rim and jumped to the ground, grabbing the boards and hollering through the driving rain, “We can use these.”
I joined him in the backyard with a hammer and nails. I had a few longer four-by-fours in a pile at the back of my property and we used those to buttress the fence, one end under the boards we’d nailed to the posts and the other end stuck in the ground. After about ten minutes, the fence was back up. “I can’t thank you enough,” I shouted as sincerely as I could against the wind and rain, as we both hurried to get back inside our homes.
The next morning, the hurricane had passed and was battering South Carolina as a Category 5 storm. I went out into the front yard to repair a couple of boards that had fallen off the fence during the night. The neighbor with the Schnauzer saw me and walked over. He asked if I needed help. But by that time, I had already nailed the boards back into place. I let him know I appreciated his offer and we stood and talked for a while. I discovered his name was George. I also learned he was divorced and that the lady I had seen at his home on occasion was his daughter. She had ridden out the hurricane with him and was engaged to be married in November.
By late afternoon, the electricity was back on and the neighborhood had come through the storm mostly unscathed. Over the next few days, I recalled how Les had gone out of his way to help during the storm, and I made it a point to get to know him and his family better in the months ahead. I got to know George a lot better, too, and we no longer merely waved from a distance. Neighbors had actually become neighbors. Still, there were others living on my street and I wanted to get to know them as well.
I happened to recall the words of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel: “We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!” I realized in the midst of making time to go to Mass, confession, pray, read Scripture and give alms, I had neglected one of the core tenets of the Christian life: to love my neighbors as myself – which first requires getting to know them. I was glad the hurricane had jostled us out of the ordinariness of our daily lives.
God had allowed Matthew to make his mark.