At this moment, many people are concerned about the well-being of the people on the East Coast of the United States and the impact of Hurricane Sandy. The flooding is severe and the damage extensive. The physical power of floods is daunting.
As a college student, I spent time in Italy and happened to be in Florence during the flood of November 1966, when the Arno River overflowed and covered the streets nearest the river in thirty feet of water. We had been staying in a hotel on the corner where the Ponte Vecchio crosses the Arno. About 5am calls came to our rooms to ask that we assemble in a lobby on the second floor of the hotel. We were told to evacuate. Arrangements had been made at a small hotel deeper and somewhat higher in the city, about ten blocks away. When we walked out of the hotel after that meeting the water was up to our calves.
Establishing ourselves on the third and fourth floors of the little hotel where we would ride out the flood, we watched the water rise. We helped the owner barricade his first floor entry. The water careened down the narrow streets and smelled of petroleum. It became a highway of rolling cars and packages of Italian made goods…sweaters, carved chess sets, leather-bound books. The barricade we had constructed submitted to the pressure of the water and the first floor of the hotel quickly filled with turbid, turgid water. Oil slicks laced the surface that was constantly rising in the streets. The temperature dropped outside and in. There was no heat or power and heating fuel tanks burst under the pressure of the floodwaters.
This continued into the night and dark morning hours when the flood began to recede. Then we heard powered inflatable rafts of the various emergency crews make their way in the dark along the streets to see who or what needed rescuing. Our great concern moved toward the area we had left the morning before. The Church of Santa Croce and the Uffizi Gallery, close by the Arno, hold many priceless, early Renaissance art treasures. When it was possible to walk out of the hotel a couple of us made our way to the Arno and up the hill to Piazza Michelangelo to see if we could secure bottles of fresh water and bring them back to our hotel for the residents.
This is when I saw the real defeat of the flood. The Ponte Vecchio is a beautiful bridge structure of precious shops displaying and selling artisans’ works of gold, marble inlay, wood, leather, etc. Entire trees now pierced the shops and the works of these craftsmen were in ruins on the bridge road. But at either end of the bridge piles were forming. As each citizen, including us at this moment, walked across the bridge, whatever was found was carefully placed in one of the piles for the artisans to return and claim. This was the Golden Rule in operation. People were not pocketing or looting. They were restoring. The sense of restoration permeated the city. Strangers were carrying shovels into shops to help the owners dig out from the mud and debris. The flood had not only failed to dispirit the people of Florence but had brought to the fore their best of heart.
The pressure of the floodwaters did not lead to depression. Instead, there dawned a new Renaissance of singleness of purpose, love for one’s sense of place, and unselfed love for one another. We can expect no less of the East Coast.