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Hurricanes reveal community seldom found under gentle breeze

Public briefings, stories of heroic volunteer, private and governmental support services in the wakes of Charley and Frances, together with the anticipation of Ivan's arrival, provide the occasion for vivid memories.

Hurricane Kate's visit to Tallahassee in 1985 caused my wife and me to experience what was perhaps the most terrifying night of our lives. With our older son in the service and our younger one away at college, it was the two of us, knowing that our house had been hit hard, but not able to determine much beyond the fact that there was a hole in the roof of my study through which water was pouring. Remember, we were without power. The next morning we could see that three trees had fallen on our house.

I say we were alone, but actually my next-door neighbor and his son spent three hours helping us carry books from my damaged study to another room. They volunteered to help, and together we saved most of the library from water damage. I remember thinking what night time meant for human beings, not a nocturnal species, for most of our history. What a relief it was when dawn came.

When we came out in the morning there were more people on the street than in their houses. They were surveying the damage and comparing notes. I met folks in my neighborhood for the first time. People who were heretofore strangers stood in my yard and sympathized with us over the damage we had sustained. Someone who had the resources to make coffee shared it with those who didn't. Food also. I have never experienced the sense of community in my neighborhood either before or after Kate roared through that night.

Similar support came from our insurance agent, the adjuster, our construction contractor and many others. I had acquaintances who offered the privilege of their facilities for a hot shower during the days we waited for our electricity to be restored. I learned from my experience with Kate that it is an ill wind which doesn't blow in a heightened sense of community.

I was moved by Gov. Jeb Bush's impromptu account of the experience his family and close friends, along with their respective pets, had huddling in a hallway as Hurricane Andrew struck the Miami area in 1992. I could identify.

And I have appreciated the manner in which the governor and other state officials have been downright pastoral in their concern and care for victims of the three major hurricanes that have hit Florida. Their leadership has been impressive and admirable. It is admittedly difficult for me to identify with Jeb Bush politically or to agree with a number of his policy initiatives, but there is a way in which natural disasters and human pain transcend the usual differences. The governor, lieutenant governor and many others have been there for their constituencies in a responsible and effective way. They deserve our thanks.

People of faith (and I don't just mean ultra-conservative evangelicals and Roman Catholics by that designation) care about community. Indeed they are, as we say these days, faith-based communities. Their experiences of community have historical and catholic as well as local dimensions. The sense of membership in the large community is rather abstract if it is not grounded in local fellowship: the sense of membership in the local community is more disciplined and effective when it is informed by the experiences and traditions of the large one.

Even a secular, postmodernist philosopher such as Richard Rorty (among others), who is not into faith communities, writes of the need for a sense of "solidarity," that is of being sympathetic to the pain of others. These hurricanes are among those forces which leave in their wake a sense of social solidarity, providing common cause for unified compassion and service.

Americans know that freedom and security are important social values. So is community.

Leo Sandon is a professor of religion and American studies at Florida State University. E-mail him at lsandongarnet.acns.fsu.edu.

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