Starting over after tragedy

I turned on the television last week to see a story on a husband and wife clearing away mud and debris caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. They told the reporter they were still without power and lacked the basic essentials.

The husband tried to keep a brave face and said much of the house could be replaced, but he teared up when he talked of family mementos and photos that had been destroyed. The two turned away from the camera and went back to work. They looked exhausted and weary.

Later that same night, I saw another report on a California married couple who managed to survive six hours inside their neighbors pool while their entire neighborhood burned to the ground.

The Santa Rosa couple had gone to bed and woke to find thefire upon them. They tried to get away, but with no place to turn, they ran to their neighbors pool and huddled together in the pool while flames overtook everything around them. After the terrifying night in the pool, the couple walked back to their home to find it completely burned along with their SUV and truck.

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While they survived, another Santa Rosa couple forced to take a similar measure weren’t so lucky. The husband survived, but his wife died in his arms. The death total from the wildfires rampaging across the state currently numbers more than 40.

A reminder of the past

With all this tragedy, I’ve been thinking about a woman I met a number of years ago when I was a reporter in Virginia. She and her young son lost everything in a fire. They lived in a small working-class rancher at the end of a long country road in Northern Virginia horse country.

The woman had been at work, about 50 minutes away in Fairfax county where she worked as a receptionist and part-time as a waitress, and her two-year-old son had been at his babysitter’s house. When the two came home in the evening, they were greeted by local fire trucks and police. All that was left of the house were a few smokey embers.

Firefighters told her that the fire started in the rear of the house and that it went up in minutes. They blamed the fire on faulty wiring. She stared blankly holding her son while a police officer spoke quietly to her. Her eyes were glazed and it didn’t look like she comprehended what he was saying.

I came back several weeks later and, at least in my mind, I could still smell the fire. I talked again with the woman and she was still pretty shaken and overwhelmed with insurance questions and the process of rebuilding.

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Time heals many wounds

Close to a year later I happened to drive by the woman’s old house. I was getting ready to move back to Pennsylvania and decided to turn back the road to to see how far along she had gotten in rebuilding her life. In fact, she was complete. Everything looked brighter, newer. A new house stood where once there had been nothing but smoke and embers.

I stopped and, on a whim, I got out of my car and knocked on her door. She opened it and couldn’t have been happier. She walked me around the property and even showed the the new garage that had been added onto the side of the house.

She talked in rapid fire bursts on all that had happened over the past year. She couldn’t stop thanking the local fire volunteers, social workers and neighbors who stood by her in her time of need.

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A constant reminder of what if

She wiped away a tear when she talked about the old photos of her parents and Petey, her son’s stuffed teddy bear, that couldn’t be replaced, but she praised God that she and her son hadn’t been home sleeping when the fire blazed through the house.

I remember her comment clear as day. In almost a whisper, she said: “We wouldn’t have had a chance.”

It will take years for many of the homeowners in the path of the recent Hurricanes and California wildfires to rebuild and move on. The challenge will not be easy.  They’ve lost much. However, my hope for them is that one day they will be like the woman I met: happy and excited to show their progress.

Until then I’ll keep them in my prayers.

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