Irma and A Short Story About Things That Are Good
You should not place a stumbling block before a person who is blind. It’s a well known commandment found in the Hebrew Bible. It is found in a portion of the Bible called Kedoshim, most commonly translated as “holy ones”. I thought about this idea several times while preparing for Hurricane Irma, while running away from Hurricane Irma, while being taken care of during Hurricane Irma, and while on my return home from Hurricane Irma. I thought about this idea both for its obvious implications as a prohibition from taking sinister action to hurt or deceive someone, as well as a slightly different form of the idea — You should find and remove any stumbling block already before a person who is blind.
Hurricane Irma, and the media attention surrounding its long march towards the islands and the main land made many of us blind. Some physically, but most of us emotionally and psychologically. Here is one story, about individuals, families, businesses, and major corporations (mostly) removing stumbling blocks, doing good and being holy ones for us.
My family and I were visiting friends and seeing the band Phish in Denver at Dick’s Sporting Good Arena over Labor Day weekend. We flew home to Miami Beach on Monday September 4th. When we landed, a text message awaited us from our Denver friends. It was screen shot of Governor Rick Scott’s state-of-emergency message that had been announced while we were comfortably experiencing the miracle of flight. My wife and I shrugged it off. It’s Miami in September. Storms develop, threaten, and then sputter out somewhere. My wife and I both lived through Hurricane Andrew. Whatever Irma was would be fine. Later that evening I went to our neighborhood Publix grocery store to restock the refrigerator after our vacation. Publix was already in some kind of minor hysteria. Shelves being emptied, friends and neighbors stopped in the aisles discussing escape plans. It all seemed a bit much considering the projections I had googled didn’t have it making landfall in South Florida for nearly a week; a long time in the uncertain path of a Hurricane. But it was hard not to absorb some of that frantic energy so I went to the water aisle to stock up. When I got to the aisle a Publix employee pointed out to me that Publix was discounting its water. A case of 24 bottles of 16.9 oz water was on sale for $2.49. By comparison I know friends who paid $15–20 for the same thing at other stores or through Amazon once everyone shifted into Hurricane preparation mode. Publix was being good. Disaster had not struck, and it was at least six days away, but Publix immediately removed any obstacle to acquiring safe drinking water for a price nearly anyone could afford.
That Monday night I tried to read as many models on Irma as were available online. National Hurricane Center, Wunderground, the-never-wrong-European Model. A friend posted the website windy.com which has this absolutely beautiful animated map of the world and its wind, ocean, and wave patterns. You can allow the site to play out several days of ocean activity. It’s really stunning to watch, so I just sat there watching it as it demonstrated Irma slamming into Miami. I looked at flights to Baltimore, MD where my closest friends outside of Miami live. Tickets were reasonable at $180 round trip. But when would Irma really hit? I went to sleep, no tickets purchased. By the time I looked at flights again Tuesday morning, the certainty of a direct hit with which the local and State governments and the media spoke had been ratcheted up to an “11”. Plane tickets to Baltimore were now either sold out or $800 round trip with a stop. My wife and I are fortunate to have three kids. That’s $4,000 and a serious stumbling block.
I spent most of the work day on Tuesday looking at hotels in Orlando and Atlanta trying to predict what days we would need them for. Both cities were quick to jump on Miami’s panic and instituted hardline cancellation policies, giving those who booked on Tuesday afternoon for a storm that might hit on Saturday, or Sunday, or maybe even Monday only a day to cancel. Basically take your money, throw it in a garbage bag, and set it on fire. A coworker’s sister works for Marriott and shared with us her “friends” corporate code. This got us a discount and a later cancellation policy. I booked rooms for myself and a friend. About thirty-minutes later I called my parents and sister. They wanted rooms too in case they began to panic in a similar fashion to myself. I went back to Marriott.com, entered the “friends” code. It was no longer enabled. No more corporate discounts or later cancellation terms.
A good friend said to me during the whole Irma experience that he was unaware of a single couple that didn’t get into a major disagreement over how to deal with Irma. Disagreements which often spread beyond Irma. By the time I had hotel rooms booked I had one foot in the car; road-trip ready. My wife on the other hand was spared the anxiety gene, and has a work ethic only matched by her father. She works at a major hospital on the water in Miami Beach and was on the schedule until Friday. We fought about it. Without much consulting with my wife, I had agreed to hit the road on Wednesday with our closest friends in Miami. My wife was not leaving the hospital that quickly. We fought some more. Eventually, we reached a compromise. My wife would work a half-day Thursday. Ensure her patients were taken care of and prepped or evacuated ahead of the storm.
The first three-and-a-half hours of the drive from Miami to Orlando were fun and the roads generally smooth with short periods of slow down. This kids drew pictures, watched The Lion King and generally enjoyed themselves. About 40 miles south of Orlando the real traffic began. Standstill. Cars began using the shoulder as an additional lane. I made some comment about the selfishness of people who clog the shoulder in situations of potential need. My wife decided a better approach would be to assume that anyone speeding down the shoulder was racing to save someone’s life. This became the new vocalized motto for shoulder-drivers “Save your life!” Ok, good.
It took another three hours to go those last 40 miles, but we made it to the hotel, a Marriott. Our plan was to stay in Orlando for one night and then head to Atlanta as early as possible the next morning. At check-in another Miami evacuee was noticeably anxious. She explained to the front desk that she had only booked a room through Sunday morning and now the storm had slowed down and was projected to pummel Orlando on Sunday or Monday. The two women working the front desk responded as perfectly as any two humans could have. They assured her that many people were booking, cancelling, rebooking, and on and on. They would find her additional room nights at their hotel. If they couldn’t guarantee it at their hotel, they would find her a room at another hotel. If they couldn’t find her a room at another hotel they would make sure she was safe in their hotel, even if it meant getting creative with the sleeping situation. Furthermore, if she ended up booking additional nights at another Marriott and then needed to cancel, the general cancellation terms were waived. Basically book whatever you want, cancel whenever you want, and you won’t be charged unless you actually sleep in a hotel room. These women saw an individual who was scared, and they promised her an environment that would protect her while making the financial burden as minimal an issue as possible. Goodness. Hotels redeemed.
My kids went swimming in the hotel pool. My wife and I committed to waking up at 4:30am to head to Atlanta. I studied waze and google maps trying to make sense of each map’s inability to accurately increase the estimated arrival time based on current traffic issues. What I learned was that the estimated arrival time shown in these apps during such complicated traffic data situations is almost always wrong, but there is an easy way to figure out the truth. If you zoom in on each current traffic incident, each app will show an estimated delay for that specific incident. Add up all those estimated delays and tack it on to the overall travel time given. For example, at approximately 2am Friday morning, both google maps and waze predicted that it would take 8 hours to get from Orlando to Atlanta. There were still a few areas of “red” traffic incidents even at 2am, each with a delay of approximately 30 minutes. Therefore, the real travel time at 2am; assuming no more traffic incidents occurred, would have been 9 hours. If it wasn’t obvious from my 2am data set, sleep was not coming easily. I texted my sister who had just arrived in Atlanta after driving 19 hours straight from Miami. I expressed my trepidation for the early morning journey. I made my case to take I-95 instead of the Turnpike and I-75. While I-95 was longer in mileage, it had experienced less traffic incidents the day before. It didn’t have service stations built into the highway which were causing major slowdowns on the Turnpike and I-75. I committed that if at 4:30am there were already traffic incidents on the Turnpike and I-75 and none on I-95, 95 would be the route.
Meanwhile, the hotel was doing more good. They waived their normal pet prohibition and many guests were grateful. Our neighbor across the hall had brought his dog and then apparently went for a very long walk or was deaf. The dog barked incessantly most of the night. Days after the storm I listened to an interview with a man who remained in the middle Keys during the storm. When Irma had passed, he went walking around his island and found more of his neighbors’ pets roaming around than his actual neighbors. I tried to sleep, but it never came. 4:30am. I checked the map apps. The Turnpike and I-75 already had a few small incidents showing up. 95 was clear sailing. Nonetheless, all the apps still suggested taking the Turnpike. I was too sleep deprived to battle the all powerful Waze and its handler Lord Google. We abandoned the I-95 plan without much debate.
The first few hours, with my wife at the wheel, were smooth sailing. Some back roads provided beautiful scenery, even if that scenery was too often speckled with confederate flags. There was a lot of chatter on line about gas shortages. My wife and I talked about how amazing truck drivers are. While nearly a million residents were fleeing north, the men and women who drive oil tankers were hauling up and down the highways ensuring gas was readily available. Somewhere around Perry, GA we stopped. Refill the tank, empty the bladder. A tanker was at this particular stop refueling the station. I went over to the men at the tanker and thanked them for what they were doing. They seemed genuinely grateful for the recognition and we chatted briefly. One of the men was from a town in Ft. Lauderdale just about 20 miles north of our family’s home. These guys were goodness. As stressful as it was, ultimately it’s easy to run away. It’s much harder to spend days on the road, away from family and friends, to ensure everyone else has the fuel to keep running.
The overly simplistic formula I had devised in the middle of the night was proving true. The map apps kept pretending that it was an 8-hour drive to Atlanta, but each traffic incident delay needed to be added to that base number. About 10 hours into the drive, somewhere north of Macon, GA and among beautiful back roads and less attractive confederate flags, I decided we should fly back to Miami. Most major airlines were now in redemption mode — offering direct flights from Atlanta to the Miami area for around $100 per ticket. I booked five flights with cancellation insurance for Monday. I then began the process of trying to find someone who would drive our car back.
We had hotel reservations at the Marriott Suites in Midtown Atlanta for the next three nights. We also had the option to stay at the home of my sister’s best friend from college. We went with the home. I called the hotel to cancel. All reservations were now fully refundable until 2am the night/morning of check-in. The woman on the phone encouraged me to keep my remaining nights, and decide day by day. Even if I forgot to cancel, she assured me, they would make sure the room was refunded if I hadn’t actually checked in. More goodness. We arrived at our friend’s home after about 13 hours of driving, and the goodness began spilling out in all directions.
The Robkin-Salzberg clan have a large but modest home. Their home exists to be used not be seen. The only sacred elements in their home are the people, and not any of its things. By the time we arrived, rooms had already been set up for my wife and I, our kids, an amazing couple from Venice, FL, my sister, and her friend from Miami. If more people showed up invited or otherwise, they were clearly welcome. There was a ceramics art studio in the basement. Musical instruments lined the walls in another part of the basement. Food was being prepared in the kitchen. Enough for twenty people. We were all instructed not to lift a finger. They would take care of us. Stories began to spread throughout the various communities in Atlanta who were housing Florida evacuees. One couple had a baby in their hosts’ home, and their hosts were now planning the bris for that couple’s new baby boy. By the time night fell Friday evening my wife and I were still shedding layers of stress but our kids were on vacation.
Irma kept shifting west. Miami would be spared the worst, but many islands had already been hit hard and Naples and Tampa were now in the direct path. Our flights for Monday were cancelled and automatically rebooked for Thursday. If you recall my wife’s insistence on working as close to impact as possible earlier in this tale, you can intuit that returning four days after the storm would be unacceptable. Drive or fly? To drive meant to wait until Tuesday, once the storm was done with Florida and Georgia. Roads would be a mess with debris. Gas tankers wouldn’t be able start refueling until Tuesday. The storm went up the West Coast of the State, but it was so large that East Coast cities like Jacksonville still flooded and suffered wide spread power outages. Leaving Tuesday seemed like a bad idea. I started calling Delta a few times a day to see if any earlier flights; perhaps Tuesday night or Wednesday were available.
Meanwhile, the Robkin-Salzberg clan and their guests continued breathe, eat and sleep goodness. My close friend, and local mayor back home, had chosen to stay put and hang with the police and other first responders. He was updating me. Flooding, damage, but overall gratitude that Miami had dodged a major bullet. I was probably one of a hundred or more people reaching out to him for updates. After the storm he went by my house. Took pictures. Told me it would all be good. He was goodness. Another friend back home is a news reporter. He had to report in this thing. Not because it provides some rush like sky diving, or because it’s actually safe. It’s scary as all hell. It’s completely not safe for all the reasons these same reporters tell you it’s not safe while they dodge debris and get strewn about by 100 mph gusts of wind. But he did it. He told me a few days later that if his reporting provided advice or calm to even one person that otherwise would have done something to jeopardize their own safety that it was worth it. He was goodness.
I kept checking on line for updates and predictions from friends. The same friend who posted that mesmerizing site windy.com now posted a note about a former student of his named David who escaped South Florida for Atlanta but now had no ride back. I asked for his number and reached out. I told David we weren’t sure if we’d be driving back or flying but either way he’d have a ride with us or he could take our car. Win win. Plan in place.
Atlanta was great for the kids. Young kids dealing with the fallout from a major hurricane is not ideal. This seemed better. We went to parks, the aquarium, played music, made short films. Over five and half days in Atlanta we ate only one meal not prepared by the Robkins-Salzbergs. We went out with friends in the City. After ordering I realized I had forgotten to get anything for our youngest son. I went back to the counter, placed the order and took out my wallet. The woman behind the counter refused my money. She had overheard our kids talking about getting to go home, and decided we had enough to deal with. The forgotten sandwich order would be on her. I insisted to pay. She refused to accept. Goodness.
Tuesday morning our best friends, who had also escaped to Atlanta, made a run for it back home. I wasn’t so adventurous and decided to keep looking for earlier flights. If that failed, I resigned myself to Wednesday driving, hoping gas and road conditions would be more predictable by then. Tuesday night I called Delta back and was connected with an agent named Angie. Angie was empathy incarnate. She knew why I was calling without me really having to explain anything. She told me that everyone she was speaking with was conflicted on how to get home and seats were being booked, cancelled, rebooked, and on and on. If she kept refreshing her seating map occasionally new seats would become available. Finding five seats on an earlier flight would be challenging but she told me she would stay on the phone with me as long as I wanted her efforts to endure. She also told me that if I wanted to cancel my Thursday flights in order to drive, all tickets were now fully refundable. Goodness.
At one point Angie had three seats held for me to Ft. Lauderdale for Wednesday morning. I could send my wife and two younger kids home first. She wanted to keep trying. Refresh the page. Try a new flight. Refresh. Check Miami airport instead of Ft Lauderdale. Check West Palm Beach. Refresh. Debate the usefulness of this exercise. Refresh. Double refreshing. Eventually Angie had four seats held on a Wednesday afternoon flight to Miami. Book it. I could easily find a single seat on another flight. By the time Angie had entered my family’s flight information into the seating manifest she had grabbed a fifth seat and had spent nearly an hour on the phone with me to accomplish the task. My wife could now get back to work a day earlier. We could all fly together for about the same cost as gas, food and hotel would cost to make the drive over two days. David would drive the car back. Good.
We got home early Wednesday evening. Power had just been restored after being out for close to five days. My in-laws were still without. They would stay with us. My father-in-law had already started the clean up before we got home. Goodness. My parents escaped South Florida to Atlanta with my 95 year old grandmother. The last thing she ran away from was Hitler. From Atlanta, my mother took my Grandmother to New York to visit my aunt and uncle, her other grandkids and great grandkids. Goodness. My father and sister each drove home solo. Not easy after absorbing a week of stress. Impressive goodness.
Then came Jose. The islands got it again. As I finish this, Puerto Rico is being pummeled by Maria and Mexico is suffering from another major earthquake. We were fortunate — both because Irma wasn’t a direct hit and because we had the means and finances to run. Others were not. At home we helped friends and neighbors with clean up. We had countless conversations with those around us to make sure they had everything they needed. The local synagogues (and I assume churches and mosques) provided meals, places to stay and around the clock support. After a few days home, a very common story on line and in the media, revolved around looting and disgruntled residents still without power. I get it. These are real issues. But I had just been the recipient of so much good, from people who were not police officers, fire fighters, FEMA workers or other first responders — all who deserve high praise as well. The goodness my family and I received came mostly from people who removed stumbling blocks — physical, emotional, psychological, and financial — simply because they wanted to do something good. I’m going to focus on that for now.
If you would like to support some charities that seem to be doing the most good they can for recent disaster related challenges, check the grid and feel free to add your suggestions: CHARITY GRID
Love and thanks to Michelle, Simone, Lev, (little) Shai, Sara, Mom, Dad, Grandma Sylvia, Zeity Jack, Safta Rachel, Grandma Frances, Amy, Ben, Ellie, Ari, (Big) Shai, Judy, Navit, Ori, Kol, Havi, Renee, Marc, Chloe, David, Bruce, Pete, Luciana, Gabe, Rosh, Angie, Moshe, hotel folks, restaurant folks, oil tank drivers, the guy at that gas station in no-wheres-ville-Georgia who offered to fill my tires with air, and I’m sure a lot of other folks who deserve it.