Small town, big hearts: a shelter from the storm

As a lifelong resident of a metropolitan area on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, I'd grown used to the annual series of scares and near misses that the hurricane season brings. But this time it was different. This time there was a Category 4 storm raging just offshore and headed directly for us. As dusk fell, we hurried our kids into the car and joined the long line of evacuees fleeing the big coastal cities through howling winds and pelting rain. We were headed for the rolling hills of northern Mississippi. Three hundred miles later we pulled into a roadside motel in a small town.

When dawn broke the next morning with white puffy clouds dotting a clear blue sky, it was hard to imagine the seething storm still taking aim at our hometown. Our trip even began to take on a "vacation" atmosphere. Unlike past vacations, though, there were no theme parks, no big city museums, no white sand beaches. Just a small town - one of the road map's little dots that we breeze through on the way to somewhere else.

Here was our opportunity to introduce our children to life in a small town - a slice of America we had never bothered to explore. We drove the main streets past neat brick storefronts and meandered through quiet neighborhoods of white clapboard houses with gingerbread trim. Words like "quaint" and "charming" had never seemed so appropriate.

Yet somewhere beneath our admiration for the town's charm I sensed a tinge of superiority in our comments. "It's really cute," said my 11-year-old daughter, "but why would people want to spend their whole lives in a small place like this?" I had to admit I'd had the same thought.

With a long day stretching before us, we bought the makings for a picnic and headed for a nearby state park. For people used to the flat land of the coast, the rolling hills with wide vistas and the view from the bluff above the lake were more thrilling than any theme park ride. We hiked a nature trail, stopping once just to listen to the silence. It was a memorable day - a day blessedly devoid of video games and megamalls.

By late afternoon we were headed back to town, but as we approached our motel - one of a series of chain motels along the highway - we were shocked back to reality. Every parking lot was full, not just with cars, but with people - entire families, including children, elderly relatives, even pets. All were refugees who had fled the storm, like us, except that there were no more vacancies. These families would spend the night - crowded, hot, and no doubt sleepless - in their cars.

The "vacation" atmosphere dissolved. As the sun set, the winds began to pick up and dark clouds gathered. My daughter and I hurried to a convenience store a couple of blocks away for supplies. As we walked in semidarkness, a car full of teenage boys slowed and pulled up next to us. Instinctively I held my daughter close to my side and stepped back.

"Excuse me, ma'am," called the driver. "Do you have a place to stay tonight?"

I nodded cautiously.

"Well, my neighborhood got together and came up with a list of our addresses to give to people who might need somewhere to stay." He handed me a paper with more than two dozen addresses on it. "Oh, and some of the churches are holding prayer services tonight and organizing breakfasts for all of y'all tomorrow morning," he added. "We're driving around trying to get the word out, so if you know someone who needs help, please pass it on."

"I will," I said weakly, and then - embarrassed that I had been so suspicious - added the sincerest "thank you" I had ever uttered. As the boys drove off, I started to wonder: Had the tables been turned, would my big city have been as generous? Would the hotels open their air-conditioned lobbies to the elderly as a refuge from the heat? Would nearby offices and restaurants offer their facilities to anyone in need? Would carloads of teenage boys take the time to drive around trying to help?

At that point I realized I had the answer to the question my daughter had asked that morning. The town wasn't just a dot on a road map. It was a community that treated total strangers as cherished neighbors.

During the night the storm inexplicably stalled, weakened, and turned toward a less inhabited area of the coast. A coincidence, perhaps, but I couldn't help thinking of the prayer services those boys had mentioned.

The next day, grateful and humbled, we left the town that had won our hearts. What had once been nothing but a dot on a map was now a home away from home. When we reached the interstate, I opened our road map to plot the route home - and I had to smile. There were little black dots all over the map.

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