In 2005, Hurricane Wilma crossed over South Florida. The destruction was substantial. A telephone/electric pole lay across my back yard, its transformer trailing wires. Most of a large tree had come down on my neighbor’s roof. Branches were everywhere. Bits of the corrugated fiberglass roof of a plant nursery littered the ground ten blocks away. The electricity stayed off for eleven days. The municipal water supply stayed off for three.

I still had to go to work. As I made my way around town on my bike in the following days, I saw a difference in the way the people of my neighborhood and the people of the next neighborhood over handled their respective difficulties.

In the best of times, my neighborhood – mostly populated by short-term renters who were only around when not out working on boats for weeks or months on end – enjoyed little-to-no social cohesion. Few people even recognized each other as neighbors. Each was generally on his or her own.

Residents made a rather pathetic scene as they used soda cans to scoop water from street puddles into plastic kitchen garbage bins, to use for flushing toilets. The general mood was testy. It was hot and humid. Everyone was sweaty, with no showering in the foreseeable future, and food was rapidly spoiling. A fight broke out at a nearby gas station over ice.

Did I mention that it was hot? It was hot. The air was heavy with moisture steaming from the soaked ground. And of course there was no salvation to be had from fans or air conditioners. So everyone opened their windows wide and prayed for a breeze.

The first night, the guy who lived behind me ran a generator. Lying on my bed in the dark (bored to tears, no light to read by), I waited for the roar to end. By 2 a.m., I realized it wasn’t going to stop. All hope of sleep died in a spasm of frustrated rage.

The next day I saw him cleaning up his yard. I didn’t want to start the conversation by accusing him of self-centered jerkitude – I assumed the best of intentions. “I noticed your generator was on all night. Do you have some sort of medication you need to keep cold, or…?”

“Nah, I wanted to watch the game,” he replied.

“Well,” I ventured, “It’s very noisy, and I’m sure I’m not the only person around here who can’t sleep when it’s running. Would you mind turning it off at a reasonable time? Midnight, say? I have to get up early in the mornings to go to work.”

He glared. He turned away. His generator ran all night, every night, for the next ten nights.

In response, I could do nothing but seethe. There was no law against running generators. He was bigger than me, and he didn’t care about the needs of anyone else. (I fantasized at great length about smashing his generator with rocks, a bat, or a barrage of bullets, but because I had complained he would have known instantly who’d done it, and was I prepared to go to war with him if he came for revenge? I decided not.)

* * *

Contrast this with the neighborhood next to mine. Long-time residents with families. People knew one another by sight, at least, probably because they were always out walking their dogs or jogging.

By the second morning, as I passed through, I saw a small group of people talking in the park. I didn’t stop.

On the third day, I saw them again. The group was larger than the day before. They had a sign board set up. One man was gesturing toward it, and announcing something to the others. I stopped to listen.

They were having a meeting. They were working things out.

The man told his neighbors that the sign board was there for them to exchange messages with one another in the absence of phone service. They could post requests for things they needed, and those who wanted to help could do so. They could combine forays to the store to save gas. They could share food that would otherwise spoil. Each morning, they were to have a meeting to address their concerns.

One person said, “There’s someone on my block who runs a generator all night.”

Several people grumbled – they too had been disturbed by this. One declared, “We have to make a rule: unless it’s an emergency, no generators after 10 p.m.”

So they made a rule. A small committee formed instantly, volunteering to have a chat with the offender. The neighborhood had spoken.

* * *

I learned several lessons from this:

1) A group of people can meet each other’s needs together much more efficiently than individuals can meet their own needs separately.
2) Cranky self-centered jerks respond better to social pressure than to individual complaints.
3) For a group of people to be organized in a common effort, it takes just one person to decide to take responsibility for initiating it.
4) If no one does that, it won’t happen by itself.
5) Once that first person steps up, then it’s not that hard to persuade others to cooperate in a mutually beneficial endeavor. They want to do it.
6) It’s good to get to know your neighbors before crisis hits.