When Reese Harrison arrived at his dental office in Lynn Haven, Florida, the day after Hurricane Michael made landfall, the devastation was beyond imagination. Dr. Harrison’s building was in tact, but his neighborhood looked like it had been carpet bombed.
As his neighbors began to emerge from the wreckage of their homes, Harrison did what any Southern boy “raised right” would do: He fired up the grill. There was work to be done, and no one can cut trees, place tarps, assist the wounded, or haul debris without a good meal.
It was a dozen shellshocked locals at first, eating hamburgers, hotdogs, and whatever could be salvaged from freezers that were quickly thawing from having no electricity. Then it was a few dozen people; then hundreds; then those who arrived as the first chainsaw brigades.
When the “official” relief services rolled in, Harrison’s good graces extended to them. He pointed Red Cross and the Salvation Army to the worst neighborhoods. He fed National Guardsman, and he raided his dental office to supply F.E.M.A. with pens, paper, tables, and chairs.
The Presidential motorcade arrived in Lynn Haven on the morning I first met Reese, descending on the relief station with an army of photographers, media, and swarming Secret Service agents. I thought about the irony of it all. A man the entire world knew was handing out relief goods collected by a man that no one but his neighbors would recognize on the street.
And when the flashbulbs all faded, and the stone-faced officials with acronyms printed all over their shirts had bustled away, Dr. Reese Harrison remained. He and his collection of compassionate partners continued to run the grills, coordinate volunteers, and manage the heaps of bottled water, toiletries, and donated goods.
It’s this way in every community after every disaster, from Lynn Haven to San Juan, and Cape Hatteras to Redding. Official help is needed, and such assistance is invaluable, bringing longterm support, widespread awareness, and order to desperately chaotic situations. But it’s the “un-officials” who save the day.
It’s the volunteer firefighter who takes to the frontline before the first professional is on site. It’s the helpful neighbor risking life and limb to pull a stranger off a roof in the middle of a flood. It’s the church ladies turning out casseroles for evacuees as fast as their ovens will bake. It’s a dentist, temporarily unable to practice his craft, who saves a neighborhood and makes a lasting difference.
A mentor once told me that most people feel like they need permission or authorization to do any good in this world. But that’s not true. “You don’t have to know anything about anything to change the world,” he would say. “The people who just show up are the game-changers. That’s what we need: People who will show up, ready and willing to serve.” I couldn’t say it any better myself, and thankfully Dr. Harrison could not have lived it any better either.