I covered my first American disaster last week, and I found myself thinking, as I went to Punta Gorda in southwest Florida-where Hurricane Charley made landfall-about the nature of suffering in this country.
I suppose I was wondering if I'd have the same sense of helplessness and anger that I'd felt with confronted with absolute loss in South Asia. There I learned to temper my reactions with the thought that someone who loses everything may not have actually lost all that much in material terms. A house, perhaps some land, livestock, a few possessions. But if a family survives and aid agencies are on hand to help, then there's a chance that the subsistence life can be pieced together again. This is a discomforting
notion, but it's also true-materially, the world's hundreds of millions of poor really don't have that much to lose.
Americans do. I know that far too intimately now, after a few days wandering the ruins of peoples' lives in Punta Gorda. The average American family has thousands of personal possessions-books, knick knacks, photographs, pharmaceuticals, computer paraphernalia, music systems, CDs, containers, cushions, rugs, linens, soap, furniture, paintings, decorations, tools, toys, videos, televisions, radios, paper goods, clothing, shoes, sporting goods, fishing gear, firearms, home improvement supplies, hobby materials, magazines, newspapers, appliances, dishes, pots and pans...and so on.
When a tropical storm as intense as hurricane Charley hits, those possessions swirl away on the screaming winds. Later, they come to rest somewhere else-mixed and matched with other peoples' things, trapped in trees, growing soggy in pools of water, floating away on the ocean currents. Strewn all around the utterly devastated trailer park that was my broadcasting site in south Florida earlier this week were peoples' possessions, mingled and mangled in the aftermath of the storm.
Whether it's the family looking for glass perfume bottles in the rubbish of their trailer, or the old woman who wants to find a cherished chess set published in Mexico, I was struck by how seemingly inconsequential possessions mattered. Devastation, survival, these paled next to a scattering of objects and collected symbols of a life lived.
Perhaps it's wrong to dwell on such things. I should be commending the Florida authorities for a successful evacuation of the hurricane area, or telling the tales of survivors who rode out the storm in trailer homes that pitched up and down and moved along the ground. But I can't stop thinking about how what we accumulate often defines us and how a catastrophe makes a mockery of a lifetime of accumulation.
So I returned from the storm to my comfortable little flat in Miami. I live right on the water, in a perfect spot for a howling hurricane to pick up my possessions and dispense of them. I started wondering about whether I shouldn't just give a lot of my things away and learn to live simply, so that I could reinvent myself quickly in the aftermath of disaster.
I thought about it for a while...then I went shopping.