Riding past a convenience store on the way to take my daughter to an early-morning high school club, we noticed the shut-down gas pumps cordoned off by yellow caution tape.
It is difficult to celebrate Labor Day weekend when so many of our nation's citizens are laboring just to survive.
Our nation seems vast and impersonal until something like Hurricane Katrina punches us in the nose. Then it all gets personal; no matter where they are, virtually everyone knows someone who has been affected by this killer storm.
Columbia County always shines when such emergencies arise. Try these names on as shining examples: Lorraine Lynch, Ed Campbell, Jill Harpe, Gwen Wood, Bob Crutchfield, Kathy Crutchfield, Jan Deasis, Susan Hayden, John Harlan, Margaret Williams, Stephanie McWhorter, Joe Matosian, John Tucker.
These ordinary citizens volunteered for Columbia County's Community Emergency Response Team. Workers and retirees, and a couple of students, have gone through this remarkable program to learn the basics of rescuing a community in need.
Most of them probably thought it would be our community they'd help; that's what training exercises emphasize, such as the county's recent mock emergency.
Instead, the 13 CERT members and one dive team volunteer listed above are preparing to give up their Labor Day, and more, to assist the victims of Katrina.
They go as selfless, well-trained volunteers ready to lend a hand. But they also go as ambassadors from a caring community.
Columbia County has lots of things to brag about, from the recent recognitions that have come from national magazines, to our students' stellar performance on the SATs, to a quality of life that is the envy of our neighbors.
All those things are great. But when it comes right down to it, Columbia County's people are its greatest asset, and these heroic CERT volunteers are among the finest examples of our people at work " even on Labor Day.
"Geez, it looks like a crime scene," she said.
Does it ever. If you've gotten gas in the past few days, you've probably felt like you visited a crime scene - and you were the one who got robbed.
Bobby Christine, a Columbia County associate magistrate, jokes, "I guess I picked a bad week to buy an antique Cadillac." His newly acquired, long, black 1965 convertible, a car he'd searched for since returning just over a year ago from service in Iraq, has a 427 engine. As my late Granddad would say, "It'll pass everything but a gas station."
Gas stations all around here were packed with cars Wednesday evening as the hurricane-driven panic started. Rumors flew about $5-a-gallon gas and looming shortages, and before you could say "sport utility vehicle" the lines were wrapping around the block, reminiscent of the Arab oil embargo days of 30 years ago.
A few stations ran out of gas, first with the cheaper grades and later the more expensive high test. (Haven't you always suspected, as a Mad magazine cartoon suggested years ago, that those pumps with their three different prices all pipe gas from the same underground tank?) My Jeep was getting close to running on fumes, but I wasn't about to get stuck in that traffic.
Sure enough, by Thursday morning the lines were gone. Gas wasn't any cheaper, and some stations still had fuel islands wrapped up like crime scenes, but I was able to gas up without having to wait in line.
I swear, as I drove away, it looked like the cashier was wearing a ski mask.
Help after Katrina
Thieves don't just wear masks, though. A lot of them have their faces out in the open - including those we saw on television this past week, looting stores in areas stricken by Katrina. (And please, if your kid is born nine months from now, don't curse her with that name.)
The thieves have also, as they inevitably do, begun exploiting our good will by setting up scam charities. People open their hearts and wallets, in some cases never knowing that their money only went to line some con-artist's pocket.
If you want to help, here are some simple, trustworthy hometown suggestions for charities:
- First and foremost, the American Red Cross. The Augusta office will gladly take your donation, and put it to good use in helping relieve the suffering in the gulf states. Our Columbia County office will also take those donations as part of an effort by The Augusta Chronicle.
- Hope Soap, a local sister charity to the It's Spooky to be Hungry food drive, is collecting toiletries that will be sorted, bagged and distributed to the thousands of people living in shelters - including those who arrived mid-week in Augusta. Those little soaps and shampoos from hotels are handy, and razors and feminine hygiene products are much-needed.
Among other places, those donations can be dropped off at The News-Times office, which has long been a Hope Soap collection site, and at Wild Birds Unlimited in West Town.
- Just as they did after 9-11 and the Florida hurricanes, the good folks at Wesley United Methodist Church in Evans are organizing trucks to deliver donated goods to the gulf area. They want new goods: "flood buckets" with cleanup supplies; health kits with personal care products; and baby kits with diapers and similar items.
The best news: Someone else will deliver all this stuff to the victims. You won't get ripped off, and you won't have to buy gas to take it there.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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