As Hurricane Florence nears landfall, I hope whatever communities it hits will have people there like a guy in New Orleans who helped his neighbors in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina provided this guy with his proverbial 15 minutes of fame. Most of the fame involved humorous stories.
He knew he lived in one of the few neighborhoods in New Orleans actually above sea level. He had a good working generator. He was behind in work anyway and, as an insurance agent with clients across the country, he thought they might need help filing claims. So this guy figured he should stay with his client files and computer and get some work done, even if the hurricane proved as bad as predicted.
Sure enough, his house was undamaged and his street unflooded. But he still didn’t get any work done. A few friends who had evacuated knew he had stayed behind with a working computer, and they emailed to ask him to swing by their houses to assess the damage. Word spread to other neighborhood friends, who also emailed him to ask favors. Several had pets who had scampered away when they were evacuating and had to be left behind — so they wanted this guy to see if their pets had returned, and if so, to feed them. Others wanted porch plants watered. One even needed an elderly relative rescued and taken to federal aid workers for evacuation.
Soon it wasn’t just friends, sometimes not even people he knew. As word spread that he remained even after martial law effectively was declared, people who lived anywhere within a mile or two sent notes introducing themselves and asking for similar home checks, pet feedings, or whatever other help seemed desperately needed.
Remember, New Orleanians were relocated all over the country — Baton Rouge, Houston, Atlanta, Florida, you name it. It was a really hard time. People wondered if New Orleans would ever recover, and if their homes and livelihoods were ruined.
So this guy kept a running list of requests. Day after day, for weeks, he made the rounds, on foot, fulfilling these emailed requests about pets, plants, and perishables, and reporting back to the owners, including perfect strangers.
A friend of his named Knight Worley, objecting to the tone of Michael Lewis’ description of this man in a piece for the New York Times Magazine, wrote the newspaper a letter setting the record straight:
“We left behind our homes, property, and businesses. [Our friend] stayed, despite the danger, and became our eyes and ears. He daily surveyed our properties and called us each day with updates on our homes and businesses. He emptied our rotting freezers, stopped looters, protected our homes, and did countless selfless acts. [He] discovered a gas leak in Uptown that had been missed by Entergy, our local utility, and is credited with preventing an explosion. He became our boots on the ground in the mud. I will always be grateful to [him] until the day they bury me above our swampy ground.”
The man in question heard about Worley’s letter and asked him not to send it. He didn’t want the credit.
The man lionized by the letter-writer was my brother, Haywood Hillyer IV, who died unexpectedly last December. Haywood, after Katrina, had done exactly what good neighbors, quiet civic heroes, should do. Many, many others worked in even more heroic ways to save lives and, eventually, bring the city back.
Here’s hoping Florence causes far less damage than Katrina. Here’s also hoping that whatever damage it does, wherever it hits, people like Haywood will emerge to catalyze relief and recovery, and renewal.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner, and is the author of “The Accidental Prophet” trilogy of recently published satirical, literary novels.
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