I arrived in Miami to work as a Florida Senate aide many months after Hurricane Andrew blasted much of South Florida into matchsticks. The most destructive hurricane in American history until Katrina, the Category 5 storm caused a million people to evacuate, destroyed nearly three-quarters of a million buildings, and killed 61 people. Even though it had been several months, some people remained without power and services, and wondered “when will things get back to normal?” Corrupt roofing contractors took homeowner’s cash whose houses still lacked roofs, and fled town, leaving them with uninhabitable homes and no funds to fix what still needed fixing. Daily, people called the office where I worked expressing their frustration and asking for help.
Mind you, the entire country wasn’t closed for business. Schoolchildren and professionals weren’t sent home to work, and communities hadn’t been issued “shelter in place” orders. People weren’t walking around with homemade masks crafted from bandanas or socks, fearful that a friendly hug or handshake could transmit a life-threatening illness. The emotions, however, were the same: fear, helplessness, uncertainty.
As a staff, we stayed up late meeting in the office or on the phones, legal pads in hand, making lists of what needed to be done the next day, and the next day, and the next day, to lay the groundwork of solving problems. We were taking a stab at many things—helping businesses access loans, helping homeowners gain recompense from contractor fraud, communicating with grocers to monitor openings, and finding ways to keep constituents informed along the way. On another front, we were preparing for the Legislative Session and bringing together decision makers to secure funding for our community’s unmet needs.
At the core of the recovery effort was the act of taking pen in hand—listening to the challenges and committing it all to the page. A list written at midnight became the morning’s blueprint for action. During Session, we slept little. Sunrise and sunset became indistinguishable because our hours were logged indoors calling, writing, meeting, negotiating, informing, and ultimately, solving. We did what it took to advance the goals of our community. Our lists constantly evolved.
As we put the lists into action, new people came into the fold with new solutions. The more we focused on moving forward, the more momentum we gained. With daily, disciplined work, we made progress, solved problems, and forged new partnerships. Success began to overshadow the earlier, difficult chapter. Sunrises and sunsets eventually became something to experience again as urgent needs subsided.
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Florida’s phased reopening from its Covid-19 shutdown coincides with yet another span of uncertainty that kicks off June 1st: the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. As I use this time of “safe-at-home” to work on my own projects and “arrange whatever pieces” as Virginia Woolf says, of an evolving life (newly single, recently out of grad school, raising two teens) in the midst of a global crises, I’m thinking of how others are cataloging problems and charting successful pathways. I think about the public servants making lists of problems, doctors and nurses making notations about every patient, hospitals writing requests for supplies and equipment, and journalists conveying all that is happening. I think about the first responders officially documenting their encounters. I think about students learning from home, pecking away on keyboards, working on essays and math problems, and sending it to their teachers in a virtual format that weeks earlier was exchanged at school. Parents, now assume the role of teacher often while struggling with their own financial worries. And while the brave staff in America’s grocery stores might not have to do a lot of writing, I can think of many to whom I will be writing thank you notes.
I especially think of artists picking up a brush, a guitar pick, a ball of clay, a camera, or, like me, a pen, and doing what we’re called to do—face the blank page, the blank space, and commit. Writers pick up a pen and relentlessly crystallize our thoughts, ideas, and emotions about everything happening around us. This act leads to the next thing, that leads to the next thing, that ultimately becomes something bold and exciting that wasn’t on the page when we first started. When finished, what lies before us is something that is the result of one of the most magical equations I know: idea plus commitment. What results from this equation is new. Maybe the result answered a question or solved a problem. Maybe it’s a creative work that inspires others. And once it’s all done, sunrises and sunsets take on new meanings.
Frances Susanna Nevill is a writer and professor living in Orlando. She has an MFA in fiction and is working on her first short story collection. Follow her on Instagram @floridayall and Twitter @francesnevill.