Humbling hurricane

David B. spent much of his weekend watching the sky. Homeless and turned away by the only shelter within walking distance because it had reached capacity, David did the only thing he could to brace for Hurricane Frances: He walked the streets of Tampa looking for a dry place that shielded him from the wind. And he prayed each time the rain fell harder that the storm would soon go away.

“It’s scary,” he said. “Very depressing. You don’t know what’s going to come at you.”

The occasional updates he got about Frances’s whereabouts came from the blaring news reports on car radios as drivers stopped at traffic lights or from discarded newspapers he found blowing in the wind. “Where is it now?” David asked me Sunday evening as the eye of the hurricane entered eastern Hillsborough County.

“It should be right here where you are in a few hours,” I told him.

Too devastated to respond with words, David simply shook his head and lowered his eyes.

For two days, he’d walked the city. Since the public bus service had stopped operating, David couldn’t get to the designated shelters within the county. When I met the 50-year-old man Sunday, he had taken refuge inside a downtown Tampa parking garage. His calves, visible because he wore shorts, looked red and swollen. He clung to everything he owned inside a black bookbag that rested on his back. He’d all but given up hope of finding a decent place to ride out the storm.

As Frances bore down on Tampa Bay and emergency crews began assessing the damages, I thought about people like David. He didn’t have a home to lose during the hurricane. He didn’t have a car to worry about. He didn’t have a job to call the next day to say he couldn’t make it in because he wanted to do some cleanup around his property.

Thinking about David and realizing that I now have more to be thankful for than before Frances, living without electricity for more than three days suddenly seems like a minor inconvenience.

I’d rather not have been one of the thousands of Hillsborough residents still without power as night fell Tuesday, but I was. I had a roof over my head, a dry bed to lie on and a Styrofoam cooler full of life-sustaining food, topped by a 5-pound bag of ice.

When I thought of David’s swollen ankles, I frowned a little less about the flat tire I got while driving around the city to report on the storm Sunday. When I thought about all that David owned — cramped inside his bookbag — I smiled because I had friends with electricity who gave me a place to toss my bag of clothes while I used their bathroom to take a shower.

As news reports poured in during the aftermath of Frances’ fury, folks across the state of Florida sounded as if they decided to make the best of things. Neighbors, including mine, emptied their freezers and barbecued together. Nothing bonds people better than a horrifying event.

Even David didn’t have to weather the storm alone. When I saw him Sunday, several other homeless men were seeking shelter in the same garage.

Frances, almost more so than Hurricane Charley a few weeks ago, seems to have humbled Floridians a little. I see more people talking to one another in the grocery store. It’s refreshing.

Sometimes the only way we’ll look up and take stock of what we have is when we’ve been knocked flat on our backs.

Despite his own despair, David seemed ready to stand strong with the men gathered around him come high winds and rising water. Without the material things in life to cloud his judgment, he realized that all that remains in the end is human life. What powerful insight.

Finally, folks across the state seem to be catching on.

Kevin Graham is a former Oracle Editor in Chief