By Julie Swanson
Ever since Hurricane Hugo, I find that I listen to reports of disaster with my heart more than with my head. When I hear about people suffering from the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the tornadoes in the Midwest or Hurricane Sandy, I know that their lives will never be the same.
Disaster changes the way we think about the people we love, the place we live and the many individuals who make up our community. We become vulnerable in ways we never were before.
My husband and I lived in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands for 18 years. We came first as volunteer cottage parents for the Queen Louise Home for Children in 1975. For seven years we worked side by side as administrators and eventually adopted our three daughters from the home.
St. Croix is breathtakingly beautiful, but beneath its beauty is great need. More than 50 percent of the islands’ population lived beneath the poverty line, and the cost of living at that time was higher than any place on the mainland. Eventually I became the executive director of Lutheran Social Services in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which in addition to managing the Children’s Home also supported a home for senior citizens, a telephone hotline service, an AIDS information line, and a drug and alcohol abuse prevention program for young people.
In 1989, after having been in St. Croix for 14 years, we had never experienced a hurricane. That was about to change.
On Sept. 17, 1989, Hurricane Hugo came barreling ashore St. Croix with winds approaching 200 miles per hour. Then it slowed down to a crawl, lashing us with hours of punishing rain and wind. My husband, children and our two dogs spent the night at the Children’s Home with 38 children, three families and eight staff members. My 6-year-old daughter Sara and I huddled on a small bed as debris fell around us. Through the falling cement dust, I could see the roof rise nearly six inches and then fall.
The Lord held us in his protective embrace. Both the Children’s Home and our elderly housing facility had minimal damage. But many individuals were not that fortunate. 90 percent of the homes on the island were damaged, and a quarter of them irreparably. Two people died and 80 were hospitalized. Our elderly facility quickly became a shelter for more than 200 people who were suddenly homeless.
Our home — like most of those on the island –was severely damaged. Our roof was gone, windows blown out, whole sections of a room missing. It would be eight months before we had power restored. Recovery seemed like a dream.
The storm was terrifying, but the specter of trying to rebuild lives and homes was overwhelming. We knew we needed help.
Help came — and it stayed.
In the first week, people from Lutheran Disaster Response arrived to help us plan our recovery. Over the next four years hundreds of Lutheran church volunteers came to help us rebuild. And nine months after that terrifying night I was at the ELCA’s Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America telling the more than 1,000 people gathered about our experience and accepting a check for $70,000.
All told, the National Lutheran Church’s Disaster Response Coalition donated more than $250,000 to the rebuilding program. And our community came together to help one another through the Interfaith Coalition of St. Croix, a volunteer group that rebuilt hundreds of homes.
After Hugo I understood more fully what Mother Teresa meant when she said that the problem in the world today is that we draw the circle of family too small. Looking at the amazing and generous responses of people in our nation to those who suffer disaster, I realize that our task is to keep drawing an ever-larger circle that brings us together in true community.
You can enlarge our circle of caring and donate to those who have been affected by the tornadoes in Oklahoma and elsewhere through the ELCA. Your act of generosity will help put families on the road to recovery.
Julie Swanson is President and CEO of Lutheran Family Services of Virginia, which is an affiliate of Lutheran Disaster Response.