Last week, we had a bit of a scare with Hurricane Irma skirting by Savannah.
I don’t want to minimize the trauma that many, many people felt in the Caribbean and in Florida. People will be living with the rebuilding process for many years. But this is simply to describe the experience in Savannah.
So that qualifier out of the way, what we had here was (for a time) a mandatory evacuation. Emergency officials were concerned with the early paths that showed Irma taking direct aim at our city. Obviously, if that had happened, I wouldn’t be writing this nor would there be much positive news to tell. As it turns out, the storm kept moving further and further west, and we got a brush instead of a hit.
Still, many people (most?) did leave. For those of us that stayed it was one part surreal, one part very concerning, and one part – beautiful and serene. The city, and the downtown neighborhoods in particular, were noticeably free of vehicular traffic. On the streets around us, we saw multiple families out riding bikes together – on streets that sometimes have no bike traffic. Many businesses had to close because their staff left town, but quite a few fought to stay open with skeleton crews. Nearly all of those were locally-owned, and featured the owners chipping in by cooking, sweeping, serving or whatever was needed.
I don’t want to be overly Pollyannaish, since we were all at least a little worried, but there was a tremendous sense of people just slowing down and enjoying the city and their neighbors. People always do tend to bond in an emergency, but there was something more than “coming together” as they say.
Two things came to mind – the first being something I wrote about snow storms several years ago:
it doesn't take much of a weather event to reveal just how fragile our existence is. And how dependent we are on our machines. For so many, life just shuts down completely. That's not always bad, except that it's a forced choice, not a conscious one.
And it also reveals just how much of the "panic" that comes with a big storm is because of our auto-dependency. For example, if you live in a place where walking is the norm, a storm is just an inconvenience - you can still get to the store, the local bar, to work, and the kids can even get to school. But in a culture where all those things require a vehicular trip, we either shut life down completely or over-purchase on our vehicles for winter driving ability.
Hurricanes are obviously not snow storms, but I felt that many of the same observations held. Life was able to go on (and actually be quite enjoyable) for anyone that could walk or ride a bike. It was remarkably quiet. All of which brought me to the second thing that came to mind: this Streetfilms video of Nijmegen - a mid-sized city in the Netherlands.
When your neighborhood streets are dominated primarily by people on bikes and walking, it’s very hard not to wonder what it would take to make that the norm instead of the exception. What would that world look like? How would we live our daily lives, and do all of the things that we need to do? What changes would need to happen?
I know that we all have to live our lives. We have to make money, pay the bills, run errands and take care of the kids. All of this often necessitates driving around, and feeling in a hurry. Many, many people struggle to just handle the basics of life, and don’t have the ability to ponder this like I am. I’m not trying to be insensitive to those concerns. That is the real world of America in 2017, and nothing happens in a vacuum.
But a great many people of all income levels really do want something other than the typical choices offered to them. My wish is that more people can experience this alternate reality that I’ve described, and more people actively use their voices to make changes where they live, neighborhood by neighborhood. For a brief time, experiencing what it could be like, it was glorious. Like many pre-WWII cities, Savannah is heavenly when people slow down. When we walk, bike and drink in the simple pleasures of life, it just feels much more – human.