Hurricane can bring out people's best

August 23, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

THE GUY WAS selling ice for $15 a bag.

We're talking plain old frozen water here, not diamonds. Although, in August of '92, just after Hurricane Andrew ripped across greater Miami, there wasn't a whole lot of difference. In those days when the power was off, the roof was gone and the heat was sweltering, a man with ice could name his own price.

So I am distressed, but not particularly surprised, to hear that days after Hurricane Charley hammered Florida's Gulf Coast to ruin the tattered region is confronting a plague of a different sort. Namely, the price gougers who are crawling across the devastation as roaches do a kitchen sink. Assuming I can make that comparison without offending any innocent roaches.

After all, even a garbage-crawling insect might reasonably resent being lumped in with the kind of person who could gaze upon a life-and-death crisis and hear opportunity knocking. We're talking about the kind who would reportedly charge $110 for a $39 hotel room, while knowing your home is destroyed and you have nowhere else to go. The kind who would ask $3 for a gallon of gas or upward of $20,000 to take a chainsaw to some fallen trees. The kind who would pose as insurance adjusters or contractors, take your money and disappear.

You'll have to forgive me for ranting, but I tend to take this personally. You would, too, if you'd ever driven past $15 ice on principle only to settle for lukewarm bottled water instead. Or if you'd ever stood in your living room, looked up at the stars and said, "OK, God. Now what?"

Which is not to say I can't appreciate the futility of my own ranting. After all, what we're talking about here is human nature, and that's as close to immutable as it gets. People are greedy. They lie, cheat and prey upon one another. Hollering at that won't change it.

What we sometimes forget, though, is that greed, lies, cheating and predation are not the only characteristics that define human nature. Thankfully, it is defined by other things, too.

Let me tell you a story.

A few days after Andrew passed, a man I barely knew gave me and my family the use of his home. It was empty, preparatory to a sale, a tree had fallen on it and it had no electricity. But his house had one thing ours lacked: a roof. We moved in gratefully and camped there for several days.

One morning on the radio, I caught an announcement that ice was available for something like a buck a bag at a supermarket about 40 miles north, so one of my sons and I jumped in the car and drove up there. We waited in line for a couple of hours, bought five bags of ice and took them home.

Whereupon I was suddenly struck by the obvious: I had more ice than we could use and no place to store it.

It was as I was cogitating on this dilemma that the lady next door wandered over bearing gifts. This woman I had never seen before had been grilling meat from her freezer rather than allow it to spoil. She had more than she could use and wanted to know if we might like some freshly cooked chicken.

When she saw the ice bags, her eyes grew wide.

Needless to say, we worked out a trade on the spot. She went away hugging ice bags to her chest. I enjoyed my first hot meal in a week.

I could tell you other tales like that, people who opened homes and wallets in the face of overwhelming need. And all these years later when I recall Andrew, it's them I see first -- not the guy with the $15 ice.

That's the thing that keeps me relatively sanguine as the reports come in from the Gulf Coast.

I'm confident that when Charley is only a bad memory, the people who lived through it will come to the same conclusion I did 12 years ago.

The world is full of human cockroaches. But the rest of us have them outnumbered.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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