"Get out" was what came in the door. "Fire!" the farmer yelled. Mother was leading me out of the kitchen and up the stairs for my nap. I was six years old, the youngest of six, and the rest of the family was away. After the farmer's yell, we heard the faint bell of our fire alarm, the kind that really was a little hammer on a metal bell, on the outside of our brick three-storey house on a small farm in Connecticut. We ran outside, and my memory has made the sight of the smoke a cartoon: bright blue day, red brick house, smoke gushing out the farthest third-floor window in a straight horizontal line until it made a right angle up.
In a small town in the Berkshire foothills, there was a Yankee sensibility: little entertainment and no public water in 1966 meant hardiness and virtue. Our house was left to burn. My brothers had the clothes they were wearing. My sisters, parents, and I salvaged some clothes although faintly lined with tar smell and loss. But we were safe. When we left the land around sunset (the house burned until 2am), most of us kids packed in our light green stationwagon, our mother stopped to yell at our closest neighbors who had spread a blanket out on a knoll, packed a picnic basket, and watched as our house collapsed in on itself. But the next day other neighbors with kids our age and size dropped box after box of clothes at our grandmother's doorstep. For years we lived in the kind elbows of our neighbors' clothes. After that fire, our parents divorced, and my mother and my siblings lived in a house with light and laughter for the first time.
Forty years later with a clipboard, name tag, and Red Cross jacket, I arrived on the scene of hot fires, we called them, ones in which the engines were still doing their work: ladders raised, great torrents of water, men and women in black and yellow suits rushing in and out. After classes in CPR and First Aid, multiculturalism, filling out the myriad forms, communicating, and more, I was unprepared for the first disaster: an act of arson to a dilapidated home of a woman who horded in a neighborhood changing into cul-de-sacs and McMansions. Another Red Cross volunteer and I walked through what was left of the home, and the smell made me six years old again. But with a pen and training, we could give this woman a clean, safe place to stay, clothes, and food for two weeks. Tears came when she took hold the first credit card she'd ever had, the one we gave her with enough money for meals.
And three months later I was dispatched to Houston, then Baton Rouge, then Lake Charles, Louisiana on day six after Katrina ripped the South open. This was no fire. For the four thousand sleeping on mattresses stacked in a stadium, this was water, and this was wind. They brought TV sets and picture albums. Some brought only their clothes. One couple in their eighties had thought they could wait the storm out. When they were both swimming in their living room, he lost his glasses, but held her hand and guided her out. She was diabetic. It was days after the flood, and he still couldn't see. Luckily, she had medication. I guided his hand to the right lines for him to sign on the form that would guarantee him at least a little money. (All ATMs were shut down. Banks were underwater.) Everyone said the wind was what scared them.
What I saw again and again were strangers helping. Despite theft and hording, our shelter became a small town. Fresh fruit would appear on a family's chair. Young women would bring food for older women. Young men, tough in their t-shirts and tattoos, charmed volunteers and elderly by giving up their seats or leading them to shade or bringing them news of relatives. Many prayed. The network formed quickly for news of where to go for used clothing, where the laundromat was, what bus to take, where you could keep your dogs. Disaster had made each person a bright shiny penny.
And when Rita came through Lake Charles, the people packed their things and took each other in. They watched and spread wings, and did what they had to do. They survived on kindness and recognition that they were alive, that things are things. That's all.
Disaster changes everything. For some, recovery means something bright.