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Peering into the ‘I’ of the Storm

How did you experience the storm and what have you learned?

Hurricane Irene not only created a physical storm that took the lives of over 20 people, caused massive destruction and a loss of power–she also prompted an emotional and spiritual storm as well, and has left a great many people feeling powerless on many levels that have nothing to do with electrical currents.

Some are calling this the end time prophesized in the Bible–and who could blame them–an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week sure sounds like some kind of Armageddon. 

But maybe this is just the end of our comfortable existence in which everything is predictable and safe and often taken care of by someone else.

Maybe this is our new normal and we need to prepare not only with generators, D-cell batteries, bottled water, and fully stocked pantries, but engage in some serious inner preparation as well. And maybe it’s one and the same. Maybe the decision to be more self-reliant constitutes a spiritual shift.  

For many, Hurricane Irene has kicked us out of our normal lives and routines, and left us sitting in the dark and silence, feeling like refugees in our own neighborhoods.

And for those without electricity who have well water, life is not only difficult but dreary. I think it hammers away at some primal fear when one turns the faucet on and there is nothing–it feels like the well is dry.

For the two and a half days I was without power at the top of Schooley’s Mountain in Long Valley, I felt as though I was a stranger in my own life, out of balance, and sort of disoriented. The days and nights before, during and after this storm seemed to bleed together into one very long day. 

Even though I live in a 290-year old home, I realized that I like the idea of quaint, more than the reality.

I’ve also had to manage the cleanup from a couple of inches of water that seeped into my childhood home in Stirling, built by my grandfather in 1921, so I know first hand the powerlessness that one feels with no electricity and the vulnerable feeling of seeing the once-friendly river rise and become threatening.

If there was ever a time when we needed "Practical Spirit" I would say it is now. And I think Practical Spirit comes in the form of random acts of kindness, getting still within oneself, and employing humor when ever possible, but I’m certainly not saying this is easy, and 24 hours ago, before my power and water came back on, I was seriously questioning the meaning of life. 

As JoAnn Pravata of Bernardsville said, as she cheered her sump pump on while she watched the water rise in her basement, and a neighbor’s tree fall in her yard and pounded down her fence, “If you didn’t get flooded, lose power, or have a tree fall in your backyard, well then, you haven’t fully experienced Hurricane Irene.”

She was able to laugh about it at that moment because she completely let go of it. She said she realized there was nothing more she could do but let Irene sweep over her.

The true test of one’s character and belief system is how one responds when the world has seemingly gone to hell in a hand basket. And that’s pretty much what happen in the last five days_depending on your perspective.

From the anxiety fueled by the media coverage that rose to a crescendo by the time the storm hit on Saturday night, to the panic and fear that struck at 3 a.m. in the morning on Sunday when I checked the online river gauge and knew that the river would spill into my home in Stirling, I felt a wide range of emotions that was physically and emotionally exhausting.

But does the exhaustion come largely from the inconveniences and the physical tasks that surround the aftermath of a hurricane or is our suffering related more to an inner storm?

At a gathering on Monday night in Morristown, during the second wave of power outages, several residents shared their perception of the storm and its aftermath.

“I became increasing more excited as the storm approached. There was something truly magnificent about it,” said Peter Hodge, a resident of Franklin Street, who was enjoying the gathering by candlelight around his kitchen table.

“There is something very awesome about its power–even the destructive aspects of it, I find intriguing,” he said.

“I never enjoyed being without power before, but this time, I am. I’m finding it very intimate, embracing and challenging."

Hodge said the biggest disappointment for him was that Burnham pool was muddied by a small landslide and has been closed temporarily.

Eric Lovendahl, a guest at the gathering said he found the closing of NJ Transit and the New York subways to be a great inconvenience because he works in Manhattan.

Lovendahl who works as a waiter in Manhattan said, “Aside from the inconvenience and loss of income, I’m actually enjoying the loss of electricity. I think the loss of power brings people together–such as gatherings like this by candlelight.”   

He admitted however, that in Florham Park, where he lives, he never lost power.

Katerina Hellner-Apelt, a resident of Madison and a legal researcher who works in Morristown, said she was fortunate not to feel any of the ill effects of the storm such as flooding, power loss, or downed trees, but she was frustrated by the loss of power at work.

She also thinks most people over-reacted.

“I think people panicked. It doesn’t make sense to go out and buy 10 gallons of milk or stock up for days. It wasn’t like the food was going away,” said Hellner-Apelt.

Another Morristown resident, Melissa Rivardo, who works as a massage therapist at Morristown Medical Center said the loss of power has made her realize how things could change in an instant. 

“It’s made me think a lot about how things could go out at any moment and I also have a better understanding of what it feels like to be homeless–having to roam around to find a shower for instance,” said Rivardo.

“You don’t realize how much you rely upon modern conveniences until you don’t have them anymore,” she said.

She said the entire experience has made her realize that she needs to manage things a little better and be more prepared.

At the heart of it, even the shift in perspective about being prepared is an emotional and spiritual shift.

We can make the choice to take full responsibility for our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being by choosing to be proactive, instead of reactive.

We can also find some peace by choosing to let go and roll with the changes in our lives instead of fighting them at every turn out of fear of the unknown or just fear that we are losing our power or control over our lives.   

Another option is to simply say, as many do in dire and bleak situations, "Well it’s in God’s hands."

However, others might say, "God helps those who help themselves."

Buy a generator.

Chris Katz September 03, 2011 at 11:57 AM
Clean up was easy, cooking, a breeze, reading at night and even replacing batteries to the itzy-bitzy transformer radio we had didn't bother us. It's now a matter of finding my patience. It ran away from home and I don't think it's ever coming back!! If you see it, I'm offering a reward.
MaryLynn Schiavi September 03, 2011 at 12:32 PM
My emotions ran the Elizabeth Kubler Ross 'Stages of Grief' gamut: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Without electricity and water, your entire routine is disrupted and at one point I was driving 35 minutes to take a shower when I could make it through the maze of open and closed roads. And then of course seeing my childhood home flooded with a few inches of water -- was sad. Of course others around the state -- lost everything. I know others had it much worse, but it's still very disruptive and disorienting and on top of the struggle with this economy -- well, it was definitely one more straw this camel couldn't take.

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