Throughout the aftermath of Irma’s visit to us in LaBelle we have all had a lot of down time on our hands as we’ve waited to see what the next steps we were to take were going to be. Cleaning up debris, restocking essential supplies, visiting friends and neighbors, and trying to stay clean and cool were at the top of our daily to dos but suddenly the days seemed longer than they did before when all of our busy work of checking emails, reading messages on Facebook and other social media platforms, shopping, and many other facets of our ‘normal’ day to day activities were gone.
As I made my initial outing from the boarded up house into LaBelle I remember viewing the townscape almost as if images were being broadcast on a television news program in my mind. “Oh, look at that tree.”, “Look at that sign!”, “Oh my gosh!”, “Oh no!” I kept exclaiming as I saw one shocking piece of destruction after the other. I was flooded with emotions of gratitude, disbelief, sadness , and wonder all at once.
I was grateful that I was alive and that my loved ones were safe; I was grateful for the fact that though our community was beat up quite a bit, it didn’t resemble the devastation that I’d seen on YouTube videos and news footage from other recent storms.
I was in disbelief at what seemed to me to be such random and erratic points of damage. How is it that a fairly large tree with a strong root system was completely upturned beside the LaBelle Post Office and yet several hundred feet away the Truly Nolan car in the parking lot of the Southern Heritage Real Estate office was untouched and looking especially pristine after being pressure washed by the storms intense rain soaked wind gusts?
I was sad at the wreckage that I did see. I was sad when I passed the LaBelle Elementary School and saw the overhang of the bus lane all crumpled up like a wad of tissue paper, sad at the down traffic lights across town. I was sad when I saw the streets of the Maple Corner Community flowing like a stream, sad when I thought of how much time energy and resources it was going to take to get our town into shape again.
Then I ventured further into communities north of the Caloosahatchee River. I saw flooding that covered cars, flooding that was reaching into the elevated doors of mobile homes off of streets like Avalon Avenue off of highway 78. I saw a sad and drenched cat clinging desperately to the only dry place it could find to stand, which happened to be an island of a fence post surrounded by flowing flood water .
My heart ached for the people who had to deal with the aftermath of what Irma brought to them, but again I felt immense gratitude that these people were alive to deal with the aftermath of what Irma brought to them.
I felt wonder as I looked about at these familiar images that just one day earlier looked remarkably different.
As the hours turned into days and the lines formed at gas stations, no…incredibly long lines formed at gas stations and the stores that had generators started to open up, we began to have a gathering place, of sorts, to check in with each other, to hear news of what other people were experiencing, to compare stories, and to try to piece together like a patchwork quilt, some sort of an idea of what it was going to take to get back to the life that we knew before. As I sit writing this we are still in the midst of moving towards an ideal of normalcy. Many are still without electricity and running water (myself included).
I remember seeing people rush to get into the lines for gasoline and ice and water before it quickly sold out again. In my mind I likened it to the post apocalyptic movies I watched growing up. It was scary to me how quickly the world as we know it could change; just overnight.
But then something amazing started to happen: Organizations, families, and individuals began reaching out to fill the needs of those who had fared less fortunate in the wake of Irma’s destructive path. People began to open their homes to others for hot meals, hot (or cold) showers, or just to get a few hours sleep in the air conditioning. I have read posts on social media about families inviting people into their homes to get cleaned up, eat meals, and do laundry. I myself have been offered by many who have extended their hearts in true generosity- a shower, a bed, and some cold air.
True to the standards which we hold so dear in our community people started to give, and give, and help, and love.
This morning as I rode through the town of LaBelle I saw a small boy standing in front of the LaBelle Elementary School with a yellow sign that read “Free Meals”.
This morning as I rode through the town of LaBelle I saw that a lot of work had been done; trees and branches have been piled together. Some signs are still down while some are back up.
Some local businesses are open and some are not. The evidence of Irma’s visit still abounds; however, this morning as I rode through the town of LaBelle I saw… LaBelle. LaBelle isn’t just the beautiful trees that we may not now have in the numbers that we once did. LaBelle isn’t just the quaint and charming buildings that reside within our county. No, LaBelle is the people who care. LaBelle is the community of people who feeds the hungry, shelters those in need of a roof over their head, and offers relief for those who are in need of relief. Indeed, as I rode through the town of LaBelle this morning I felt a sense of love.