Generosity's place on a dark and stormy night
PORTLAND, ORE. — I know what it's like to be surrounded by water that's rising faster by the minute. It happened to my family on a stormy November night in 1999.
I was behind the wheel of my father-in-law's Buick as waves of raindrops pelted the windshield. He was a passenger, along with my wife and daughter. The precipitation was steady but didn't seem torrential. We were on a two-lane stretch of Highway 101 near the Oregon coast with almost no traffic in either direction. No need for great concern in my opinion. What I didn't appreciate was the huge amount of runoff pouring down from the hills. [Editor's note: The original text incorrectly identified the highway number.]
I slowed down as we came to a sharp curve because the pavement appeared to be covered by a long, shallow puddle. In fact, the curve was part of a low-lying area that was rapidly filling up with the overflow from a nearby river. But none of that was obvious in the dark.
It was getting hard to see through the splashing on the windshield, and I was concentrating on keeping away from the shoulder of the road so we wouldn't bog down in mud, and then several things happened simultaneously. First the headlights went dim. I instantly realized they were submerged, and my immediate thought was, "That can't be good." Then I said "Uh-oh" just as the engine quit, and my daughter exclaimed, "My feet are wet!"
The electric windows still worked, and I managed to slide out into waist-deep water without falling. My car-exiting skills will never win me an audition for the next Dukes of Hazzard movie. At that moment, I began to feel like we were in a real-life horror movie, the kind where an average American family gets stranded in the middle of nowhere and - well, you get the idea.
Our unscripted ending turned out to be a happy one. There was a steep driveway a short distance away, and we saw a porch light shining brightly at the top. The porch was attached to a house owned by a young couple, the Cunninghams. They and their two small daughters - and a dog that wouldn't come near us - were surprised to have four wet strangers show up without warning, but very quickly they got us into dry clothes and we spent the night dozing on their living room sofa.
The storm was over by morning. We had the car towed away and found out that most local roads had been flooded, so there were no police patrols out looking for stranded motorists. We had found a safe spot in the nick of time.
So in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, as Americans are told to be prepared for coping with disasters of all kinds, remember that planning for yourself and your family is only a start. You shouldn't think only about how much you need; think hard about how much you're willing to share.
I will always be grateful that in a moment of unexpected crisis, I found a house with a welcome mat and not a sign proclaiming "Stay Off My Property!"
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.