This morning while in Horsham, PA, I was dipping a tea bag in a Styrofoam cup of semi-hot water. I had slept in a bed that was not my own, taken a shower at the hospital the night before, then eaten a turkey sandwich from a 24 hour convenience store for dinner. I had received literally hundreds of texts from my family and friends about the status of utilities, gas, water, ice and personal safety. Until this morning, I thought I was just a temporarily displaced person. But as I added a bit of skim milk to my cup, a man next to me asked, “Are you one of the refugees?” I looked at him in surprise, “A refugee?” He shrugged his shoulders, “Sure, one of the Sandy Refugees.”
I’ve had many jobs and titles in my life, but I’ve never been called a refugee before and it took me by surprise. I must have looked very disheveled or just out of place—which is exactly how I have felt since the first day Sandy showed her ugly face.
On Monday, my house lost electric power. Today is Saturday and while there is hope, it looks like it will still be three to seven more days before rural areas like mine, get power. While I would never compare my experience to that of one escaping war or persecution, I do now have a small taste of what displacement feels like.
We stayed in our house for three days after the storm hit. The lack of power left us with no water (except for what we had filled in our tub and pitchers), no heat, no lights, no internet, no phone and no way to preserve food. Since we had been given advance notice, food was not really an issue and we stayed warm by using the fireplace. We flushed toilets by filling tanks with tub water, since our well needs electricity to pump the water. On Wednesday, the temperature dropped and we ran out of water. Three days of no showers, ice cold water in a chilly house and dwindling tub levels, helped us decide that we had to make other plans. Our neighbor Jim, offered to plug in our refrigerator into his gas powered generator, but we realized an important fact: In an emergency; lights, food and even heat can be substituted. A hot shower or the ability to flush a toilet can stand-in for a lack of power. But living without running water is impossible.
We decided to cross the border into Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes from our home, where we were able to get hotel reservations. We headed out with a quarter tank of gas, one suitcase with clean clothes, food from our fridge and a few other essentials. About thirty minutes into our drive, it was as if we had arrived in Paradise or Shangri-La. Electric lights shone all over the landscape, car owners leisurely yawned, as they filled gas tanks and water flowed abundantly. Upon checking into our hotel, and before a hot shower, we promptly were evacuated by fire alarms. An hour later, after the fire and police had left, we learned there was a gas leak and sadly, there was no hot water available. But we were grateful for the warm room and lights.
I have become a shower leech. I take showers wherever and whenever I can get them. I have taken the last two at the hospital before leaving work. If you open my bag, there is extra underwear and something called, “PrepCheck.” It’s a preoperative skin preparation cloth that provides “rapid bacterial action against broad spectrum of microorganisms.” This is usually used on patients before they enter the operating room. I grabbed a couple when the hospital had made these readily available to the staff, so we could “shower” when water had to be conserved on day one and two of the disaster.
The long lines at gas stations (I told everyone about The Promised Land in PA!), and the extended days without power and heat have begun to take a toll on people. Yesterday while driving to work, I heard loud arguments while a car tried to jump the gas line. Today is the first day of gas rationing and those whose license plates end in an even number, will be turned away. The faces of people show not only fatigue, but anger and defeat, as weathermen broadcast news of another impending storm.
At the same time, other refugees and I have formed a tight bond. While the phone service is still sketchy, most of us are communicating via text—news about open gas stations, areas which have power restored, offers to stay or take a shower, and above all encouragement and support. There is a wide spread sense of community, hope and optimism that things will soon return to normal. Tragedy or adversity can either divide or bring people together.
The lesson in all this is that we all have to depend on each other. We cannot expect help or deliverance from the government, or handouts in the midst of a tragedy, or in times of ease. We have to show ingenuity, imagination and tenacity and help ourselves and those we love and care about.
In a few days Americans will be asked to cast a vote for the President of the United States. Hurricane Sandy has taught all of us, that depending on government for our well-being is pure folly. As we head into the Thanksgiving season, I’m grateful that my family and friends are the kind that come together and offer love and encouragement when times are hard. I have been overwhelmed with emails, text and phone calls—from India, UK and all across the USA. I know that some people really care. In the end, we all have to take care of each other—refugee or not.