Lakewood - A Natural Disaster Paradise

Natural disasters are by definition terrible, tragic, and not to be desired. But the way that the residents of Lakewood reacted to the havoc that Hurricane Sandy unleashed upon us challenges the way some of you may think about catastrophes, in particular the idea that they bring out the worst in people.

Many of us expect incivility after crises, and having lived in locales perched on both ends of the cultural divide, I’ve witnessed it firsthand. Incivility and worry about impending mayhem is fueled by sensational media coverage, which all too often shapes our reactions. Hunker down or help thy neighbor? Hoard or send in food? Lock your doors or provide shelter? Who are we anyway? I realize that Lakewood’s Hurricane Sandy experience was not as severe as what took place in New York City and New Jersey, which in turn never reached the extremes of Hurricane Katrina. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of what we woke up to, we found out who we are--that we are the people we say we are.

What you believe shapes how you act. By and large, those of us who reside in Lakewood adhere to one of the most longstanding societal or tribal collective ideals of forming networks of affinity and affection--in progressive communities the myth of the freestanding individual exists largely as an outcast or in a self-imposed exile. By and large, under the cover of darkness and in the midst of cracking and falling timbers, we came together and cast out the evil spirits of a selfish and hostile society and acted upon our ancient tribal roots, Lakewood style.

At times, the deep cultural divisions and dominant political overtones of a modern individualistic divide-and-conquer ideology, in lieu of a common civil society, sever the old traditional ties of community. All too often, we are pitted against one another and rant about having to “take on others,” in particular those expressed through economic arrangements--the keeping of one’s brothers and sisters. In many cases, natural disasters break through our cultural and political walls and purge the myths and prejudices that separate us. Unlike poverty, joblessness, homelessness, hunger, displacement and other untenable living situations, weather-wrought devastation can mobilize public sympathy and government action is recognized as vital and irreplaceable because it is a “natural” disaster. This delineation is of course mostly a myth, but it is one society clings to, because to recognize natural disasters as the natural outcomes of human capitalism would be even more disruptive than the storm itself. But that speaks to a broader topic and this is meant to be a Lakewood story.

The dominant character and culture of a community shows itself in the event of natural disasters. It can go in one of two ways, unveiling a culture of hyper-individualism, self-made mysticism and brutal survival of the fittest social Darwinism, or launching a showcase of human solidarity pointing the way to a more just and equitable society. Witnessing, from the moment the sun rose after Hurricane Sandy’s winds battered our city, the typical Lakewoodite response of spontaneous altruism and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly helping, feeding and housing each other, dispelled all the media-fueled myths associated with human nature--at least in the case of the City of Lakewood.

When you think about it, everyday life is a social experiment with perpetual cycles of social tribulations that one must navigate. History has taught us that sometimes a disaster intensifies social disorder, but sometimes it offers a remarkable reprieve from it. Fortunately for us, we find ourselves in this date and time residing within the borders of Lakewood, where many ordinary patterns are shattered and scores of us step forward to become their brothers’ keepers. As horrible as the winds were that roared through our city, it could have been much worse. Both in the event and our response thereto, the winds of Hurricane Sandy blew open a door to allow us the opportunity to enter an inner Lakewoodian Paradise.

The image of the Limkemann Family, all with their "I just won the lottery" smiles, set amid the ruins of four massive trees toppled upon their Waterbury Avenue house is, to me, the most enduring image of the post-Hurricane Sandy Lakewood story. They are not shedding any tears, rather almost reveling in the fact that the Lakewood spirit can’t be broken, or crushed. Or was it the two young men I encountered on Winton Avenue that had a makeshift sign stating that they would barbeque for beer, offering to cook meat (for a beer) before it spoiled. Or was it a resident on Elbur Avenue that had a couple of extension cords running out of the front door, across the street, into another home to presumably power the neighbor’s refrigerator (a hidden advantage of high-density living). Or was it the image of the City of Lakewood, within 24 hours, setting up an emergency shelter at Garfield Middle School to assist individuals who were without power for days or who were in need a place to get a meal, charge their cell phones or a warm place to spend the night. Or was it the response of our City’s Public Works employees and Public Safety forces responding in such an impressive, timely and compassionate manner. Or was it… well, you get the picture. It was the character of many of you that shined through the wreckage in the aftermath of the storm.

Much of our society is based on choices. We choose our diet, exercise regimen, politics, music, belief in social safety nets, environmental protection, to buy local; and some of us have the good fortune to choose where we live. Thankfully my family and I chose Lakewood. But disaster, no matter its level of severity, does not sort us out by preferences; it forces us to react in the face of difficult circumstances. Once the initial shock of the events subsided, the residents of Lakewood demonstrated powerful social ties, which on a personal level, further reinforced my decision to move to this community. Civility ruled the day as we continue to lend everything from a day’s work to a chainsaw in an ongoing show of community care. Not every community reacts this way to adversity.

Years ago, I lived in a small mountain town out west that was impacted by one of the largest forest fire events of the past 100 years. Many people lost their homes on the periphery of the community and the entire region was cloaked in a haze of ash and smoke for weeks. What transpired both during and after the fire was shocking in its rage and divisiveness. Instead of banding together in a spirit of mutual aid, the dominant culture that permeated the region saw it as an opportunity to advance their ideological agenda. At the height of the flames' reach, a march was organized to demonize the area’s environmental community. The leader of a state-wide  environmental organization had his home set on fire and the landlord who held the group's office lease evicted them after a mob broke the window and threw all of their office equipment out onto the parking lot. Events like this would simply not take place in Lakewood.

Yes, in a cultural sense, I have experienced both natural disaster extremes. Throughout history, every activist movement begins with its participants united by a sense of purpose aspiring to a shared vision of a better world. I think it is this social strain of DNA that guided the residents of Lakewood during this storm. For me, every tree that was uprooted by Hurricane Sandy deepened the roots of a shared purpose and greater appreciation of our community. A civil society is what succeeds--a belief that my well-being is not independent of yours. Sometimes extreme events are needed to intensify or reconnect us to that notion. We know that our friends, family and neighbors are greater than any havoc wrought by winds. I know that the people of Lakewood are who they say they are.

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Volume 8, Issue 23, Posted 10:37 AM, 11.14.2012