Silver linings in a very dark cloud

The drive was spectacular coming down from South Carolina. The early departure gave us a chance to see a brilliant blue sky without a single cloud in sight. The morning was unseasonably cool and Fall seemed to be teasing us with an early September cool snap.
It was about 25 miles south of Columbus when we first saw the clouds.  Thirty minutes later, just above Cuthbert, a sprinkle started. Before long, we were carefully driving through a driving rain with winds that seemed to rock the car from side to side.    
We were driving into Irma, a name certain to be remembered as one of the most significant hurricanes in recorded history.  What made our trip home more amazing was that we were a full 750 miles from the eye of the Hurricane Irma, just a hint of the size of this monster storm.
The clouds were first white against the brilliant blue sky. They quickly turned dark blue before the ominous gray clouds totally filled the sky. It would be three days before we saw a hint of the blue sky again.
I have lived my whole life within 100 miles of the Gulf Coast.  At an early age I saw the devastation of Hurricane Camille, the standard for devastating storms until 2005.  The weekend of my oldest daughter’s wedding, another monster storm was headed directly towards Southwest Georgia. Katrina, another storm that will forever be a part of hurricane history, thankfully moved westward towards a devastating landfall at New Orleans.
I helped tie my parents’ boats up in mid-canal in preparation for numerous hurricanes when they lived on the Gulf Coast. We hosted evacuees from the Gulf Coast multiple times, often watching as much damage occurred 100 miles inland as happened back at their homes in Panama City.
For days we watched as this storm developed into the strongest hurricane ever measured in the Atlantic Ocean.  The destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, a totally different type of storm, in the Houston area caused people to sit up and pay attention to Irma.
Storms like Harvey come along every 5,000 years or more.   A strange set of circumstance caused 50 inches of rain to fall in an area that was ill prepared for that kind of rain; but then who is?  Americans watched in horror until an even more ominous storm named Irma appeared on the horizon and captured everyone’s attention.  
Never before has a storm taken aim at the state of Florida in the same way that Irma did.  She never wavered.   She headed towards the home of 21 Million people as she developed in a storm so massive that there was absolutely no sunshine to be found in the Sunshine State.  
Never before have storm surge warnings been issued simultaneously on both coasts of Florida.  Never before had a storm of this magnitude threatened to move up the spine of the state, impacting almost every Floridian.  Never before had a storm threatened to do so much damage all the way from Key West to Jacksonville.
The storm wavered here and there.   Millions watched the spaghetti lines move east and west in a giant game of weather roulette. A turn a few miles west spared Miami from devastation. Later a turn a few miles eastward spared Tampa and St. Petersburg from the same fate.
The twists and turns eventually spared Southwest Georgia from the damage that might have occurred from the first hurricane warning in its history.  We dodged a bullet, along with millions of others along the projected path as it moved towards Georgia.
I have always felt uncomfortable in praying to be spared in a storm whose only alternate path meant that other people would be hurt. There was no storm track forecast that left everyone untouched.  It was an “us versus them” situation, with no good outcome for all concerned.  
Thirty-two of our 37 restaurants were closed on Tuesday, an event unprecedented in our company’s history.   Yet there was very little damage, and not a single employee was injured or impacted by the storm’s massive reach.
In addition to the dedicated work of our employees, I got to see the good actions of people facing common adversity.   Shelters were opened.  People shared spare bedrooms.  Travel trailers parked in fields belonging to people they had never met.  Meals were prepared for strangers.  
Most of our neighbors were spared the worst of Hurricane Irma.  Yet millions of people today are without power, phone, water, and food.  There but for the grace of God, go I, is a phrase I have always loved.   I feel a bit uncomfortable in applying it to this situation.  I breathe a sigh of relieve at our good fortune, but I don’t really believe God spared us at the expense of millions of other good people.   He was watching over all of us.
Irma is a name I will never forget, just as I will never forget the many people in our community working tirelessly for total strangers. In the midst of one of the darkest clouds our area ever faced, the silver lining of watching our citizens comforting strangers is what I will always remember.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]  

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