Some of the estimated 4,000 people prepare to spend the night at Largo High School as Hurricane Irma bore down on Largo, Fla., Sept. 9. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Worst of Irma brings out best in America

  • September 21, 2017

Canadians are privy to so much information about our southern neighbours. It’s unfortunate that most often it’s the bad that overwhelms us when we think of the United States.

There’s Toronto’s former mayor David Miller who, during the city’s infamous “Summer of the Gun” a few years back pegged the problem squarely on the shoulders of America and its gun culture. Charlottesville and its aftermath only reinforced our perceptions of the racial divide the United States can’t escape. And there’s Donald Trump, oh that Donald Trump.

I’m writing this as I fly back to Toronto after a very tense week experiencing Hurricane Irma near Tampa Bay, from the week-long lead-up before it struck Florida Sept. 9, to the actual storm and through the cleanup. You have a few hours to reflect, yet the thing that strikes you most is the goodness in the American people.

You see it in the days leading up to the storm, when almost everyone is concerned about their neighbours and helping prepare for what we are told will be the worst hurricane to ever hit Florida. (That’s saying something in an area that knows hurricanes.) And in the aftermath, the neighbours are there again, offering any and all help.

But the best example of the innate good in the people comes in the 24 hours before Irma strikes, and as the torrential rains fall and the winds scream all around. It’s in the crowded hallways and classrooms of Largo High School, which has been turned into an emergency shelter housing some 4,000 people. It’s a cross-section of America itself — black, white, Hispanic, old and young, the homeless and mentally challenged, drug addicts, families … the whole spectrum of American life.

You are worried. From the get-go however, you are treated with dignity by the volunteers (mostly teachers), police, firefighters and other first responders. And as you stake out your little corner to weather the next two days, you begin to interact with these people who through no fault of their own are forced into a damn near impossible situation.

Perhaps the one who sticks out most is the boy named Lynn. (Like Sue in Johnny Cash’s “A boy named Sue” he’s been saddled with a name more suited to a girl).

Though we don’t talk politics, Lynn comes across as the kind of guy Hillary Clinton tarred with her “deplorables” moniker. Lynn is a little rough around the edges. He only recently moved to the area, living in his girlfriend’s mother’s trailer. (It’s not in a mobile home park, Lynn calls it like it is. It’s a trailer.)

Around 50 years of age, Lynn’s had a varied past, working across the country in all kinds of jobs that others would not do. Currently he’s earning his keep as a roofer. And he’s lived hard, as you can see in his face. For years, he drank, and drank, and then drank some more. Trouble, as these drinkers know all too well, has followed. He’s done more than a few stints in jail, he tells us, cracking us up with some of his stories. Ten years of sobriety, though, has put an end to his jailhouse days.

A more solid guy is hard to find among the thousands. He has shown up alone, having secured a hotel room for his girlfriend and her mother. Yet he’s carrying two chaise lounges and is quick to offer the extra up to one who is without. He has a loaded cooler in his truck, but coolers are not allowed. So he packs up his bag with more than enough food to get him through the next couple days. And he’s not shy about sharing it.

Lynn has lived. He sees those who will need help. There’s the young couple, she five months pregnant. You can sense their immaturity and that they have likely had a rough — and poor — existence. But Lynn looks out for them, making sure they are fed and have liquids when the storm hits and the shelter is not serving food.

He’s also looking out for the young kids, with smiles and jokes before sharing from his stash of M&Ms.

And he has defused what could have been an unpleasant situation. One fellow is all doom and gloom, raining on us inside and raising tensions. But with a quick joke, Lynn lets this fellow know the negativity is not welcome and it has been nipped in the bud.

No doubt, there are others like Lynn all around us.

Make America great again? No need. Its people already are.

(Conlon is a writer in Regina.)

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