Opinion

When a disaster strikes, people sort themselves into good guys and bad

Posted October 23

The winds were so strong that they launched trees — old, thick-rooted, heavy trees — onto roofs and through front doors, in some cases tossing them like javelins.

Power lines fell, floodwaters rose and structures crumbled in the onslaught that was Hurricane Matthew.

But that was Mother Nature throwing a wicked curveball at those unfortunate enough to be in the storm's path. It didn't feel personal or particularly venal, though it was definitely heart-wrenching, especially with Haiti's horrifying death toll.

What was heart-wrenching — and heartwarming, too — was how people sorted themselves during the days leading up to and the days after the monstrosity of a storm.

In a disaster, you can decide what you're made of. And you can learn an awful lot about those around you.

As residents continue mop-up efforts, the attorneys general in North Carolina and especially in Florida are doing some mopping up, too. They were flooded with both rainwater and thousands of complaints that as residents searched for shelter or prepared to hunker down and ride out the storm in their homes, some local businesses engaged in some serious price gouging.

After the storm, some residents were not just surveying the damage left in Matthew's wake, but were also doing an inventory of the items that looters had liberated while the homeowners in the storm's path were obeying orders to evacuate. They were also counting the cost they were being charged for recovery and survival.

Florida has a pretty strict price-gouging law that says it's OK to raise prices reasonably to cover the increased cost a retailer, hotel or service provider incurs, but in the 90 days after a disaster, it can't just be jacked up exorbitantly. And it has put teeth behind it in the past. In 2004, for instance, after Hurricane Charley, 13 businesses paid more than $939,000 in fines for price gouging, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Among other things, they overpriced water, food, fuel and lodging.

While it will be up to the states' attorneys general to determine if they think all the people accused of gouging really did so, news stories have detailed the best and worst of human nature. A tiny sampling:

— U-Haul International stepped up early to help residents in the hard-hit coastal states, offering 30 days free storage at its facilities along the storm track so that people could sort their belongings and get the stuff that survived safely tucked away so they could begin to rebuild, according to USA Today.

News4jax.com reported a group of volunteers called Mormon Helping Hands showed up at the home of Craig Shearer and helped the Jacksonville man dig out from under the tons of trees that had crumpled his house. He estimated their good-hearted efforts would save him as much as $15,000 in tree removal costs. He'll still have lots of repairs, but it was a huge help at a time when he really needed it.

— In Raleigh, North Carolina, Tyler Ahrendsen and Sharifa Mattis returned home to find not only significant storm damage, but that someone had stolen most of their valuables, including wedding gifts. The storm hit shortly before their wedding was scheduled to take place. According to ABC13, as word spread, people started reaching out to help. Rocky Top Hospitality donated beverages and items for their reception and other shops pitched in, too. They were able to wed anyway.

The Associated Press warned that cleanup was going to take a while — and so would federal disaster relief. Thousands have applied and it's a cumbersome process that takes time. People in other states are still trying to get squared away from a June storm.

Storm survivors were also being warned by officials to watch out for the cretins who crawl through the slime left by a storm to offer shoddy, overpriced or never-to-be-completed services.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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