The True Spirit of the Community

By Brad McEwen

Before most of the shell-shocked residents had crept from their shelters and the warm embrace of the loved ones they’d clung to for hours, looking to assess the wreckage strewn across huge swaths of the community, that comforting sound could already be heard drifting across the dawn.

With the sun barely edging over the horizon, casting its purple and gold glow across the shattered landscape, it was there—the steady and reassuring buzz of a chainsaw, cutting through the gloom of fear and confusion to clear the first path toward recovery.

For those citizens who lived through the terror and upheaval wrought by twin storms that ravaged this community in 2017, the memories spawned by those January events are forever etched in our minds. Thoughts of the utter destruction of Albany neighborhoods—flattened and twisted metal, insulation dangling from the tops of broken and battered trees, children’s toys littered between the bodies of fallen pines in a barren field, friends and neighbors holding each other and crying over the loss of property and life—are never far from the surface, offering a sobering reminder of nature’s fury.

But as painful as those memories are, they are inextricably linked to recollections of all the good things that followed those storms—smiling volunteers, men, women and children, patrolling the streets of Albany handing out hot coffee and cocoa, bag lunches, and bottled water; orange clad heroes descending on neighborhoods to clean away debris; neighbors pulling together to care for each other; trucks filled with supplies pouring into the community; majestic crosses lovingly cut into the stumps mangled trees; and a cacophony of cheers greeting the convoys of linemen rolling out each dawn to illuminate the darkness surrounding the powerless.

And all bathed in the steady and calming hum of the chainsaws.

While I would never wish for anyone to have to experience the nightmare of having their lives decimated by a natural disaster, I do take solace in the fact that those residents who bore the brunt of Hurricane Michael plowing through southwest Georgia were met by the same love and compassion that comforted this community just a few short months ago.

There’s no denying that as Hurricane Michael churned its way toward this community, in many ways still dealing with the violence of those 2017 storms, the fear was once again palpable. Over four-plus hours, this same community that endured those dark January days, once again descended into confusion and dread as the hurricane, already being considered one of the worst to ever impact this country, brought destruction the Albany area.

But almost immediately, the panic and shock that seemed to blanket the entire community, began shifting toward calm and relief.

Certainly the impact of Hurricane Michael was more widespread than the storms of January 2017. Nearly every square mile of the greater Albany area, from Lee and Sumter counties, down through Dougherty, Mitchell, Terrell, Baker, Worth and beyond, is now marked by the destructive force that rolled through Southwest Georgia on October 10. Piles of detritus still line nearly every street and no block of homes is devoid of blue tarps. Nearly every resident has been touched in some way by Michael’s fury.

But while the carnage clearly dwarfs that of the January storms, the outpouring of love has not.

It’s as strong, abundant and immediate as ever.

With the streets still wet with Michael’s rain, the remnants of the hurricane’s swirling winds still drifting through the tree tops, and the crisp smell of pine sap permeating the pre-dawn air, residents across the community were already pulling on their boots, gathering their chainsaws, rakes, shovels and gloves, marshalling their resources and heading out to help their friends, neighbors and loved ones.

Before many even took a moment to assess their own property damage, their thoughts had already turned outward.

They were ready, able and willing to help.

Whether the storms of 2017 brought ruin to your doorstep or not, the wake of those events brought something truly special to every one of us. The love and compassion that flooded the streets of Albany proved stronger than any straight line winds or tornados and went a long way toward galvanizing this community and strengthening its resolve.

And the aftermath of Hurricane Michael has been no different.

Yes, there are those who have used this disaster to take advantage of people, to break into houses and businesses and scam freebies from relief groups. And there are those who harbor such hate in their hearts that the hurricane provided yet another opportunity to hurl insults and bandy about accusations of racism and preferential treatment for the elite. But I truly believe that segment is the minority.

For every negative thing I’ve heard, I’ve been told about or witnessed dozens of good things—small and large acts of kindness that are indicative of the true heart of Albany.

Whether it be a church opening its doors to shelter families that lost everything, or a gang of men with chainsaws and tractors cleaning up yards and city streets, or a 12 year-old girl taking her rake and wheelbarrow up the block to clean up a 94 year-old neighbor’s yard, or teachers, students and their families gathering together to clean up their school during the week-long system closure, powerful stories of love and goodness abound.

It’s been incredible to once again see how this community has responded in the face of such strife and struggle, to see ordinary citizens morph into heroes as soon as difficulty and hardship arose. It’s truly been awe-inspiring.

But it has not been surprising.

Even before the 2017 storms and Hurricane Michael blew back the curtain to expose our true nature, I knew the love and kindness in this community were strong.

Sure there has long been political disagreements, criminal activity, selfishness, and other negativity associated with Albany. And without a doubt the community will continue to endure tough times and things won’t always work out the way many of us would hope.

But one thing that has never been in doubt is that Albany and Southwest Georgia are home to some of the best people you could hope to encounter.

It’s full of citizens with strong faith, solid work ethic, and Christian values.

It’s full of people who will gladly give their neighbors the shirts off their backs or make time to come help you haul debris out of your yard, despite their own being littered with fallen trees.

It’s full of folks whose hearts are filled with love.

We don’t always see it in each other, but it’s there and whether we notice or not, others surely do.

A few days after the hurricane plowed through South Georgia, I found myself standing in my den talking to my old friend Felonius Osborne and his son Jawuan. Felonius, who lives up in Athens with his wife Tonia and their two boys, was telling me about his decision to take a few precious vacation days, round up Jawuan and also his oldest son Tony Zenon and come down to Albany to lend a hand.

He said they had been here for two days, dropping off water and supplies and helping clean debris out of some of the community’s hardest hit areas. That Felonius, who I had not seen in a few years, would look to help others in need was not surprising. He’s just that kind of guy.

But as he explained his motivation I was once again reminded of how powerful the goodness that lives in this community truly is.

When Tay asked him about his decision to bring the boys down to help, a seriousness came over my always affable and upbeat friend. He said simply that when he heard what had happened he knew he had to come down to help. He felt he owed it to the community and the special people that call Albany home because they mean so much to him.

You see I first met Felonius just a few weeks after another natural disaster of epic proportions rocked this country.

I was working as a customer service representative at Regions Bank and one day this big black dude I had never seen before walks into my office and tells me he needs some help.

He explained that he had lost nearly everything in the floods that had inundated his hometown of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The man said his family had received a FEMA check and that it was announced that Regions had worked a deal with the government to negotiate those checks.

As I had done with every other displaced New Orleans or Gulf Coast resident that had come to the bank with a FEMA check that summer, I simply told Felonius that he could get the checked cashed at the teller line with valid ID.

But it turned out he didn’t want to just cash his check and move on. What Felonius really wanted was to establish a banking relationship in the Albany community he had already decided he wanted to join. He asked if he could open a checking account because his family would be staying in Albany for the foreseeable future.

I liked Felonius immediately, recognizing the good person I later came to call a friend, and went ahead and opened the account for him. He thanked me and said he’d be in touch. It wasn’t too long before he was back in my office asking me about financing a new vehicle. He said he and Tonia had both found work and gotten their two oldest boys into school, but having lost one of their vehicles in the hurricane, they desperately needed a second ride.

Although I don’t feel as though I did anything special, I managed to get Felonius a small loan for a vehicle and he was incredibly thankful.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the start of a good friendship, one that endured long after career changes took the Osbornes from Albany just a relatively short while after they’d arrived.

I can’t remember how long exactly the family lived in Albany, it couldn’t have been more than three or four years at the most, but I know that it was long enough for them to forge important relationships and long enough for them to learn firsthand how special the residents of this community really are.

So as we stood in my den just a few nights ago, Felonius told us that it was an easy decision to take off from work and come to Albany to help.

He said, quite frankly, that as far as he was concerned Albany was still home and that the community held a special place in his heart. He told me that his family would never forget the kindness that was shown to them when they arrived here, tired, scared and stunned by the monumental loss brought by the wrath of Katrina.

When Felonius and Jawuan got ready to leave the other night, their two days of work completed, he pulled me into a great big bear hug, and told me he loved me.

I knew that love came straight from his heart, from that place inside him that Katrina had left hurt and depleted, but that had been filled to the brim in Albany, Georgia. And in that moment I knew whatever struggles this community was feeling in the wake of Michael would eventually pass.

It was shocking when Michael tore through Southwest Georgia so soon after we had been rocked by the January ’17 storms. I mean who among us would’ve thought we’d have to endure things like that in such quick succession. I certainly didn’t.

But as shocking at the hurricane was, I was not the least bit surprised by the way this community responded. I’m beyond proud that the love, compassion and generosity that made such a mark on Felonius and his family is still thriving.

Everywhere I’ve looked in the days following the latest natural disaster, I’ve seen things that have humbled me. I keep seeing the true spirit of Albany alive and well. And I can’t wait to find out what’s next.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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