Michaud: Embracing the post-Sandy new normal

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A man walks his dog along Illinois Avenue A man walks his dog along Illinois Avenue in Long Beach. (Nov. 7, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Anne Michaud Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Anne Michaud

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion. She has written about politics, government, education and transportation

There's nothing like a life-shaking storm to make people appreciate normal. Usually, normal is ho-hum. But when life is turned upside down, normal is the most welcome feeling.

Normal didn't return for me, after superstorm Sandy, when we got our power back or refilled the refrigerator. It was when I saw faces I hadn't seen since before the storm -- about two weeks after it knocked our Island around. There we were, smiling, most of us showered, and whole. Normal returned when I realized that people in my community were, for the most part, going to be OK.

That's not the same as saying life will be the same as it was before the storm, or before this long recession. Instead, we're living with a "new normal" -- a sense that we must permanently lower our material expectations. Maybe the new normal will define our moment in history.

Some day, years from now, we may think of these times the way people recall the Great Depression. People who lived through it went on to stash away money -- sometimes in places far away from banks they no longer trusted. They hoarded food; waste became a sin. Our recollections of 2012 may be that this was the year we acknowledged how much we depend on each other.

Our country has weathered a long series of blows. The banking crisis of 2008 diminished or zeroed out our home equity. High school graduates applied to cheaper colleges, and college graduates couldn't find jobs. Stretches of unemployment lengthened, people couldn't pay their mortgages, and then . . . Sandy.

It's fair to say that many of us are feeling wiped out. Thousands of homes and more than a dozen people on Long Island were lost in the storm. It's the sort of thing that makes normal seem miraculous.

You probably think I'm going to say that we should be grateful for normal. It is Thanksgiving Day, after all. Children's smiles, purring kittens, dry basements and the smell of coffee. Yes, all of that.

But there is another point worth remembering, and that is that as the winds have receded, it's impossible to miss the compassion going around. We heard about the occasional tempers flaring as people waited in hours-long gasoline lines. But for the most part, we were patient with one another. Those with generators opened their homes. A friend cooked all the chicken from her neighbor's powerless freezer and fed the neighborhood. An out-of-state tree cutter returned to one woman's home, after his shift was over, to make sure she had lights and heat. Fire departments set up cots for utility workers who were far from home.

Everyone has storm stories like this.

During this recession, unlike those of the past, volunteerism has been on the rise, according to Patrick Covington, chief executive of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service. What motivates volunteers, he says, is connection to community, and a sense that we are all going to have to contribute if we are going to achieve community and national goals.

This year's re-election of President Barack Obama seemed to me to be an affirmation of depending on each other, with a vision of prosperity for the broadest number.

I don't hear people talking now about what they can get out of the government. They are discussing buying generators when the price goes down and how long food will keep in a freezer if you leave it sealed. They're vowing to fill the gas tank at the next storm warning.

People aren't acting like victims. They're adjusting. They're finding a new normal. It's one of the things we as a people do best.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

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