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A Letter on Words and Water

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Dear Someone,

I have been thinking a lot about water lately. Water is a blessing, a sustainer of life that we are deeply grateful for. Our bodies rely on it, our cultures revolve around it, and it moves our world forward. Too much of a good thing can be devastating, though. Never have I seen that more apparently than when Hurricane Florence hit my home of Wilmington, North Carolina. The rain that sustains the land drowned it instead, swelling the rivers until the filthy water stole lives and ruined homes. The water that we had so deeply cherished before became a monster that the city cowered from.

This week I have been working with a Samaritan’s Purse team to gut houses that were destroyed in the flooding. I don’t yet have words to fully describe what it’s like in the areas we’re assisting. The people are dazed and tired. There are many buildings still boarded up and deemed unsafe, the red posters on the door a shocking warning. I saw children wearing haz-mat suits to help parents clean their homes and salvage whatever they could. There are ten foot piles of debris everywhere, and the smell… Disaster zone is an appropriate term.

The teams approach these projects with a military attitude of mission, filling as many needs as possible in an efficient and straightforward manner. Orange shirts are our uniform and we wear it proudly. The volunteers bring much needed relief and hope, but sadly I saw some portion out pain along with it. We are working on a house that was home to a young American couple. Their house flooded so badly that the structure had to be torn down to the studs for fear of mold, and as we tore out ruined drawers in the kitchen we found them still full of water and dead fish. Amidst this trauma, I walk past my teammates sitting down beside the homeowners just to launch into an unprompted spiel about how good God is. Stories and bits of wisdom are good and so is God, but when a whole squadron of us approach our hurting brothers and sisters with unsolicited words to convert or encourage them our misguided love stings like salt in a wound. Yet volunteers poured more and more words on this couple whose home we were working on. It was like watching them try to help this flooded region with a fire hose, dousing saturated land with more water.

An older man from the neighborhood we’re working in approached our team today in tears, asking us to help him. My team stood there, listened to his story, and prayed with him. Then turned away because we were scheduled to work on a different house. I followed my team, leaving the man to watch us walk away. Sure, my team leader promised that they would fill out the required paperwork to help him “soon” and sure, that’s probably the logical way for a large organization like SP to help as many people as possible. But where was my humanity when I walked away from a brother literally crying for help? I will carry the shame of that moment for the rest of my life.

The people impacted by the hurricane break my heart. In part, because the storm hurt the areas that were already hurting. The higher income communities are in spots that are mostly removed from the devastation or they have the resources to address it quickly, so life has returned to normal there. The community has a sense of mourning expressed for what everyone has gone through, but I am still shocked by the division between those who have recovered and those who are recovering. The haves and have-nots, even in the face of a natural disaster. It follows the same painful socio-economic divides most issues in this area do.

In an attempt to plainly show this disparity to people and preserve a moment in history, I was out photographing the damage yesterday. I took images of buildings, debris, businesses. Capturing how personal the effects are shows the human toll of the storm. While along a public road photographing the debris, a woman yelled at me to “go away!” and I immediately felt shame fill me to my core. Was I capturing the photos to share a truth and help, or was I merely playing into the drama of a story we’re all enraptured by, finding a sick pleasure in trauma that we are removed from? Perhaps the raw truth of this intensely personal ordeal is not meant to be shared.

As I write I look out over the ocean and try to process all of this. The beautiful Atlantic that was blue before I evacuated is now as brown as the stench that permeates the disaster zones. The water that I gaze out over has given the area life and identity but now it has taken so much. It’s to be expected when you have a close connection with the forces of water, I suppose. Despite that, my heart will always be grieved by what was lost to this storm. I will never look at the ocean without fear after this, but I know that Wilmington will learn to love her again soon.

Sincerely,

Olivia

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