We have come to a defining moment.
Wishes, hopes and denial are behind us now, as the slow approach of Hurricane Irma, a storm big enough to swallow the whole state of Florida, appears to be ready to do just that.
These storms usually turn away in the Atlantic, as Hurricane Matthew did last year. Or even when they hit us, they can’t muster winds above less-than-catastrophic Category 2 gusts, like Hurricanes Wilma, Jean and Frances did.
And unless you’ve been one of the relatively small portion of South Floridians who experienced Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — a Category 5 storm whose saving grace was its limited, horizontal trek across the width of Florida — what’s about to happen this weekend is going to be what pops into your mind when you hear the word “hurricane.”
For this is a new one, the one we’re going to remember, starting with that sense of dread that descended over us during the past few days.
We’ve had a long honeymoon from our fate. Living on a narrow, 447-mile-long peninsula with limited escape routes never meant so much as it has this past week. Flee or hunker down? Shelter or home? Go, or is it too late?
There are too many of us for this to work right. We know that now. When 15 million people get a notion to get up and go, it’s going to be ugly. A storm coming up our spine, like this one, is that worse-case scenario that has finally come to pass.
If there’s a silver lining in this dark, swirling cloud, it’s that Hurricane Irma serves to make clear what’s really important.
We end up learning big lessons, such as that family photos are more precious than big-screen TVs. And that nearly all the “stuff” we have is worth far less than the people we need and those who need us, including our pets.
Some of us will be luckier than others. Maybe the storm will wobble closer to the west coast. Maybe the trek through Dade and Broward counties will sap the strongest winds before the storm reaches Palm Beach County.
But we all will suffer to some extent. And when the storm is by us, and the darkness sets in, a darkness that may last for weeks due to the damage the storm is predicted to do to power lines, we will reach out to those around us.
For there’s comfort in shared suffering.
We’ll learn the names of the neighbors we never knew. And it won’t matter whether they voted for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or The Voice.
The noise of generators and power saws will fill the air, and driving across traffic intersections with downed lights will be a blood-quickening enterprise. We’ll curse with the verve of sailors and smile at the hand extending a cold bottle of water.
“Roughing it” will be the new normal. We’ll develop a deep longing for air conditioning. And every day will be casual Friday.
The handy will help the clumsy. The young will help the old. The kids will be excited at first with their new camp-style existence. But then they’ll grow as exasperated as their parents.
The best of us and the worst of us will bubble to the surface. The saints and thieves among us will flourish. And we’ll all start writing our own stories.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” Dr. Martin Luther King once said.
Hurricane Irma is taking our measure. What will you do at this challenging time?
Earlier this week, I was in one of those chaotic gas lines at a Boca Raton station. I had made it to a pump after snaking along a line that started in a lane of traffic near the station.
And it was a great relief. Because I had been driving around for two days looking for gas, going past several stations that were out of gas and a few where the lines were so daunting, I didn’t bother stopping.
So to be finally parked in front of a working gas pump was the highlight of my day.
The driver on the other side of the island was trying to start pumping, too. But after feeding his credit card into the card reader, it kept denying him credit. Finally, he stepped across the island to my side. He had a stricken look on his face.
“My card doesn’t work,” he said.
How awful is that? To wait in a long gas line only to learn you can’t get gas.
“Can you give me $10?” he said.
I’ve often been approached by people at gas stations who ask for money. Usually it’s some sob story that sounds fishy. And I brush them off. But there was nothing fishy about the way he looked at me.
And we were, after all, both doing the best we could in a bad situation. So I didn’t hesitate to give him the money.
He went inside and prepaid for the gas, then while returning to his car, he stopped and told me, “God bless you.”
I don’t believe in divine intervention at Boca Raton gas stations. But I’ll take it.
We can all use a little blessing right now, in this, our defining moment.