“Do you have any generators left?” a tired-looking woman asks me at 7:15 Thursday morning. She is wearing nurse’s scrubs and, judging from her pink-tinged eyes, appears to have just finished a long shift. “No,” I reply, “we sold every single one we had yesterday.” This is the truth. We had received an emergency shipment of 100 the day before, but they had all sold out within a matter of hours. “Oh, shoot,” she says, seemingly frustrated. “Is there anywhere in town I can buy one today?” I give her the same answer I’ve given to dozens, if not hundreds: “I’m sorry, but everywhere appears to be sold out.”
This was the state of affairs throughout most of North Carolina. As a service manager at a large home improvement retailer, I’m accustomed to disaster prep and recovery. Each big storm or weather event triggers a surge in business as people frantically stock up on batteries, tarps, generators, flashlights, plastic sheeting, buckets, propane tanks, portable grills, charcoal, sandbags, bottled water. I’ve worked through the rush of many large storms, blizzards and natural disasters. The rush to prepare for Hurricane Florence, with its potential historic severity, felt different — bringing up old memories of the last time a storm with this power hit North Carolina. It reminded me that moments like these expose our vulnerabilities, but also reveal unexpected kindness.
It turned out the woman looking for a generator wasn’t frustrated; she was concerned about someone else. She ’s a home-care nurse for a patient who has to be on a respirator 24 hours a day. If her patient’s power goes out and emergency personnel are unable to respond, it could mean life or death. She left my store with a worried look on her face.
It’s impossible as a North Carolinian not to think back to Hurricane Hugo in 1989. I was nearly 6. When the wind and rain hit my family’s house in Stanly County, a rural county in the piedmont region about 40 miles north of Charlotte, it sounded like a freight train passing overhead. The next morning, we found the enormous old trees that had surrounded our house toppled over, their roots pulled up. There was no power, phone service or communication. To me, it was all a great adventure. To my father, who had the arduous task of clearing a quarter-mile driveway of fallen trees so he could get to town, I’m sure it was more of a nightmare. And to our neighbor, who let us live in his trailer for the weeks while our power was fixed, it was an opportunity for decency.
It is all too easy to poke fun at the panic that inevitably ensues before a weather event like Florence. We shake our heads at the people rushing out and buying up all the bread and milk that they can. But when you work in a store that sells disaster supplies, be they groceries or generators, you get to see past the panic. Instead, you see people who desperately want to protect and provide for those they love and care about.
When you see a person piling a cart full of batteries and flashlights, it’s easy to assume they are just being overprepared. What you don’t see is that that person is a parent to a child who is terrified of the dark. The flashlights they are buying will illuminate their home when the power goes out, and the pained look on their face is out of love for their child. You might see a man walking out of a store with a half dozen large tarps and think he’s paranoid, but what you don’t see is the leaking roof he has at home that is currently out of his budget to fix. We were mostly caught unaware by Hugo, and we won’t be fooled again.
It all came back to me when I helped an older gentleman find a specific item he needed. Before taking more than one, the man inquired about our stock level, saying, “I just want to make sure there’s enough for everyone before I take two.”
It’s unfortunate that it sometimes takes a crisis for us to look beyond ourselves and to the needs of those around us. It makes me wonder what we could accomplish if we didn’t need a looming storm to bring us together.
Steven Link is a retail manager and operates his own holistic healing practice in North Carolina.