As I drive south on Highway 41 from Venice, Fla., I see all forms of destruction and devastation. Fallen trees are everywhere. Buildings without roofs. Mobile homes turned upside down. Watermarks six feet high on the sides of houses where the occupants are trying to salvage a few of their belongings. Hurricane Ian was definitely as catastrophic as the media has told us.
As I visit friends and family in one of the worst-hit areas, I also see an incredible outpouring of charity. Neighbors helping neighbors. Strangers coming to the aid of motorists stranded in the middle of a flooded road. Business owners who scramble to reopen their store or bar, yes, to make money, but also to make sure that some of their employees have an income. An acquaintance who works at a local restaurant told me about the loss of her house and then told me about the generous tips left by even the stingiest of her regular customers. More conventionally, millions of dollars have been donated to various and sundry organizations and funds that are helping to rebuild this part of Florida. While it pales in comparison to the estimated damages attributed to this storm, it is still extraordinary to see so many strangers open their wallets up to help people in the wake of Ian.
At The Giving Review, we spend a lot of time talking about the nature of charity and philanthropy and what makes these activities different from politics, self-aggrandizement, and other pursuits fueled by wealth. We are especially favorable to those local efforts where people come together to solve a problem or make their town or city just a bit better. I only needed to spend three days amidst the debris and chaos caused by this hurricane to see people exhibit the best of this impulse in every way. For obvious reasons, disasters do bring out the best in us. As our colleague Bill Schambra wrote about another disaster, “it’s often when massive devastation is visited on a population that it discovers its true character. Suddenly a degree of community-mindedness that wouldn’t have been anticipated in normal times becomes apparent.”
The people in Venice, North Port, Englewood, and all of the other battered towns and cities of southwest Florida have discovered that “community-mindedness” with gusto. Without feeling pressured into doing so, thousands of people are pitching in to help their next-door neighbor and also the unknown victim of a flat tire in the middle of a busy road. I do not want to overdo this characterization. There is also bad behavior. There are profiteers who hoard gas and resell it at exorbitant prices. There are scam artists who offer to remove the tree from your roof, get a deposit for the work, and then disappear. And there are politicians who want to be remembered as the saviors of their community.
However, right now, acts of charity and generosity greatly outweigh the selfish and exploitative. I don’t know how long this spirit of community will last. It may fade very quickly once power has been restored and the internet is functioning. But while it lasts, it is wonderful to watch and, despite the human and material toll of this storm, you cannot leave Florida without feeling just a bit better about the human race.