Hurricane Irma’s on the way. Florida folks and residents of coastal Georgia are fleeing as fast as they can. If the gas pumps keep flowing long enough to get them to west Georgia, they’ll get plenty of what they need most: A big smile and a warm welcome.
Georgians have their shortcomings, but a shortage of hospitality isn’t among them.
Especially hospitality offered to total strangers who need a hand.
I hadn’t been a newspaper reporter very long when Hurricane Floyd drew a bead on Savannah and a full evacuation of the area was ordered. Floyd triggered what was then the third-largest hurricane evacuation in American history.
Floyd refugees couldn't go north or south, so they headed due west. All lanes of Interstate 16 out of Savannah were converted to westbound traffic, and every lane was packed.
As soon as they felt safe, evacuees started looking for shelter. Loads of Floyd refugees wound up in my hometown of Newnan. I was sent out to visit local restaurants and motels and interview evacuees.
I had to fight my way through an army of local volunteers and people from the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and other service organizations.
Rather than feeling abandoned, the people I interviewed couldn't stop talking about what a warm welcome they received.
Six years later, Katrina struck. Many people found their homes underwater before they could leave town. Survivors eventually headed for higher ground.
A lot of them came north on I-85. Quite a few stopped in my hometown. The local volunteers, service organizations and church groups were out in force again. The Katrina evacuees I spoke with didn't have to guess what they had lost. They saw the devastation on TV—hour-by-hour, day after day.
They felt like they had lost everything—and many had. What they needed most was a dry place to sleep and somebody to tell them things would be OK.
They found plenty of that in Newnan. I heard similar stories from across the state.
In the midst of the biggest challenge some would ever face, the Katrina evacuees were stunned by the welcome they received. I visited one lady in a makeshift medical center and found out we had friends in common in Newnan Orleans. We talked. When I left, she was smiling.
Another woman had lost her cellphone and was desperate to reach her family. I gave her my phone and sat with her for over an hour until she got though and reported she was alive and well.
We had other refugees from other storms pass through, and not a soul went hungry or unsheltered. They got a dose of Georgia hospitality they will never forget.
Just over a week ago, Hurricane Harvey created tens of thousands of refugees in Texas. Most of them found help hundred of miles west of Georgia.
Now Irma’s coming, and people across Florida and coastal Georgia are either making plans to leave or already have.
Expect to see lots of new faces in your hometown in the coming days.
They won’t have to tell you they’re Irma evacuees. You’ll see it in their faces.
They’ll all be looking for safe shelter and a hot meal, but what they'll need more than anything is a warm smile and a big “Hello.”
When you spot a stranger in the coming days, walk up, introduce yourself and say “How can I help?” You might find out you helped just by asking.
Alex McRae is the author of “There Ain’t No Gentle Cycle on the Washing Machine of Love.” He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org