This past week, our city and its surrounding areas of 6 million people were brought to a screeching halt. I know that an inch or two of snow and a layer of ice wasn’t to blame.
I know there are reasons - everyone getting on the roads at the same time, frantic to get to children or to warm homes, lack of planning, no salt trucks on the roads, overall bad urban planning through the years, official incompetence.
Whatever it was, mistakes were made and the finger pointing has already commenced. And that’s fine. Things have to change before the next time. This crisis was inexcusable.
But for me, this was a lesson much deeper and scarier. It taught me that we are only moments away from chaos in what we assume are ordered, planned lives. That all it takes is one small blip to create a desperate and unthinkable situation. That it’s possible that we can be separated from our children and unable to get to them or protect them. That there will be times when we simply cannot get home.
We’ve seen this in other states when natural disasters strike - Hurricane Sandy and Katrina come to mind. And most recently in West Virginia, where people were told their water was poisonous. These are things that upend and devastate lives. And when I see them, they upset me, but it’s not personal and it’s not my life. This time, it was.
Obviously, our situation in Atlanta was not a natural disaster and is not comparable in any way to the suffering of those who have been in hurricanes, storms and other devastation. This was, after all, just a few inches of snow. But it took us down.
People slept in their cars or in the aisles of grocery stores. Some spent 20 plus hours in their cars. And thousands of children spent the night in schools or fire stations or other places while their parents, frantic with worry, were unable to get to them.
We think of our lives as pretty predictable, as in “When I’m home tonight, I’ll do such and such.” Or “I can’t wait to give my child a kiss tonight when I put her to bed.” What we don’t think is this — “What if I can’t get home tonight? What if I have to sleep in my car or a random grocery store? What if I simply cannot get to my child?”
I keep thinking about the man who walked six hours so he could spend the night with his kindergartner at school and the woman who had to give birth in her car. And what of the stories we don’t know? Freezing kids in cars. Sick people without help. This was a desperate time for our metro area.
But through it all emerged the beauty of the people who live amongst us. The stories of ordinary people who became extraordinary, taking strangers into their homes, taking care of children not their own, a hotel employee walking miles in the freezing night to get a post-op patient his medicine from the hospital, grocery store employees caring for the stranded. These people restore hope and make me realize that whatever comes, we will all have each other’s backs. We are part of not just our own families but a community that will come together when it needs to. We are not alone.