A year after Hugo: the Good Morning America helicopter made several passes over the creek today in preparation for the “one year anniversary of Hurricane Hugo” programming that was aired in September. Two of my shrimping relatives went in the ocean instead of participating in the ground-based interviews filmed in advance. Surely a good sign. The media harvest is winding down. The harvest of the sea triumphs.
Hooray and a sigh. Fifteen months ago my wife and I picked our way among the fallen trees that blocked these streets. On every side mud, marsh grass, and dead fish were mixed with parts of houses and house parts. An entire fleet of shrimp boats had been flung high and dry upon what was once “the hill.” Helicopters hovered overhead that day as well, taking television photos that I suppose were shown that night or the next. We had no way of knowing, for electricity wouldn’t return for another three weeks. And I assumed we got the usual ten-second “bite,” but judging by what happened next there must have been much, much more. Huddling over a battery-operated radio that night, I heard the South Carolina governor declare that “the town of McClellanville no longer exists.” “Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated,” quipped Twain. The governor must have retracted soon after—and with a vengeance—for in the days that followed I would come to think “reports of our existence were greatly exaggerated.”
True, I wasn’t happy to hear our obituary. Especially since at least a hundred citizens of the town proper and thousands in the inundated area had miraculously survived a tidal surge of sixteen feet and hurricane winds that probably exceeded 175 mph. Many of us that morning had been wandering through the rubble being photographed. We weren’t dead, just in shock and hardly prepared for the thirty-eight trailer trucks of relief supplies that arrived one night. Suddenly, there was an army of well-meaning help swelling our tiny community of 400 souls. President Bush even tried to squeeze in but was rerouted at the last minute down to Charleston. Bad weather was the official reason given but a false report to the Secret Service of dead bodies and rifles was the rumor. Rumors. There were lots of rumors and chaos that would rival the most surreal of Fellini’s carnivals.
Despair, greed, and petty corruption. That’s what the cynic in me recalls most. What lobe of the brain is that? Perhaps the rear-reptilian. Shame on me, for now almost one year later the town is at least recognizable. The large pines are gone but the great sprawling live oaks have survived. Homes have been repaired and new ones are being built. The shrimp boats are not leaning against houses but in the ocean towing. Dogs, church, children— what we expect of normalcy, all are there and in record time.
Without the federal disaster aid (delivered by sometimes generous, always bumbling bureaucrats), without the Marines (now I understand the concept of martial law), without the Corps of Engineers (the S.O.B.’s finally found a job big enough to suit them and they were very, very good at it), without the Red Cross (they tried), and without the insurance adjusters (your life is in the palm of their lightly gripped fist), without all these the rebuilding of the town would have dragged on for decades. Without the churches (God does exist—watch a Mennonite hammer), without all the volunteers (such astounding generosity from every corner of the country), without the cash donations and the truckloads of food, clothing, and building material, and without the media (they’ve got to be included), without all these it’s possible our little community would never have rebuilt.
So why now, with the Good Morning America helicopter chopping off over the slightly crippled horizon, why do I feel such anger towards my fellow man and most of all towards myself? I’m not alone. Tempers still flare. Depression and insomnia are the norm. The subject of Hugo Stress drifts through every conversation. It’s not psychobabble if it’s happening to you or your friends and neighbors. Obviously, all this anger has something to do with loss. We have our town back, but it’s not “our town.” I’m guessing that the words that apply are the optimism of innocence. Maybe we lost it at the movies. Or maybe we just lost it.