IT’S BEEN A WEEK since the rain fell, and the dams collapsed, and the lakes and rivers overflowed, and the floodwaters rose, and kept rising — swallowing up streets and bridges and cars and yards and apartments and houses and businesses and neighborhoods.
Killing at least 17 people.
Driving thousands from their marshy homes, some to return to incomprehensible chaos, others to return to … nothing. Or at least nothing salvageable.
Closing hundreds of bridges and roads, too many of them washed away entirely. Leaving 375,000 people without clean water in the Columbia area alone — 188,000 of us with even the contaminated water supply at risk.
The destruction is overwhelming and the work ahead daunting, from torrential rains and catastrophic floods the likes of which our state had not experienced in recorded history. Rains and floods that cut a deep gash through our community and our state that will heal oh, so slowly — over days, weeks, month, years even.
But the devastation does not tell the story of the past week.
The story of the past week is the strangers who pulled out their boats on Sunday and maneuvered them through rivers and lakes that had been streets and yards, plucking up infants and the infirm, and everyone in between, and hauling them off to higher ground. It’s the neighbors who pounded on doors to roust neighbors and help them gather up what possessions they could as the waters rose.
The story of the past week is the people whose first inclination on Monday morning was not to crawl back under the covers and imagine the whole thing away but to offer their services to the Red Cross or the United Way. It’s the people who loaded up their cars with food or tools or friends every morning and drove to flooded neighborhoods and just started … helping. Hauling whatever they could out of waterlogged homes. Cleaning what could be salvaged. Throwing out what couldn’t be. Handing out water bottles and serving up freshly cooked meals and offering a shoulder to cry on.
It’s the stories we’ve heard over and over of people who were too overwhelmed even to know where to start when strangers swooped in and took charge of returning order to their disheveled lives.
It’s the people who opened their wallets to help pay for all the things that the volunteer organizations provide — food and water and temporary shelter and clothes and household goods and everything else that people need when they need … everything.
We see this sort of generosity after every disaster, of course. But this time it seemed bigger and more generous and more spontaneous, and it seemed to encompass a broader swath of society.
Maybe that was because of the erratic pattern of destruction. Hurricanes take out entire communities, leaving everyone struggling. Tornadoes wreak awful destruction in discrete, often isolated, areas. This was a disaster that we all felt, that altered all of our lives, if only for a few days, but that left most of us without lasting scars. Classes were canceled for thousands of students, kindergarten through college, who weren’t affected; work was called off for government employees who were not in the floodwaters’ destructive path; in fact, most of us were urged not to go to work. So we sat at home and watched the devastation on TV and told ourselves, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and we felt compassion, and maybe even a little survivor’s guilt. But mostly compassion. And we had the ability and occasion to help others. So we did.
Or maybe it was because there’s something special about the people in this state and this community. Maybe it’s something special that we didn’t even realize we had. But we did. And we do.
Soon most of us will return to our normal lives, or as normal as we can get when we still can’t drink the water. We’ll go back to work and back to school and back to our routines.
Even the people who have no homes to go back to will squeeze in FEMA forms and insurance claims between their normal daily duties. But they will be far from recovered.
Volunteers will still be needed even after the initial urge to volunteer has dissipated. Money will still be needed to pay for all the things that insurance and the federal government don’t pay for, or don’t pay for soon enough, even after the initial urge to donate money has dissipated. After those of us who were merely inconvenienced have moved on to the next drama in our lives and forgotten how much our neighbors suffered.
Continue to suffer.
What our community and our state have endured over the past week is tremendous; what the people who make up our community and our state have done to help those in need is inspirational. We need to keep helping.
Even more than that, we need to keep alive whatever it is inside of each of us that drove us to be so very generous and compassionate in our helping and our giving. We need to make that who we are all the time, not just when the water rises.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.