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Woog's World / Resilience prevails in Westport, and especially Newtown

Published 7:47 am, Monday, December 31, 2012
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When Hurricane Sandy hit, we lost power. We lost cars and roofs, even entire houses. We thought life couldn't get worse.

And then 20 little children, and six loving educators, lost their lives, just half an hour from here.

Can life get any worse than that?

It's been a tough year for Westport and a far tougher one for Newtown.

But our towns are tough.

Actually, that's not true. A town can't be tough. But the people in it can be. And ours are.

When the hurricane hit, Westporters swung into action. Those with generators opened their homes to those without. Those with chain saws went loudly to work. Those with shovels, wheelbarrows and rakes went to work too, though a bit more softly.

Teenagers hauled sand from beachfront homes and Old Mill Beach. They cleaned up Longshore. They went door to door in their neighborhoods, asking neighbors they'd sometimes never seen what they could do to help.

Drivers offered rides to stranded folks whose roads were blocked by trees and wires. Little kids raised money for other little kids in Breezy Point and the Jersey Shore, places our kids may not have been, but suddenly felt very close to home.

And everyone in Westport -- or so it seemed -- collected everything from bleach and clothes to basketballs. They brought it all to a big rented truck on the corner of Imperial Avenue and Bridge Street. Every night for a week, the truck -- driven by Westporters suddenly galvanized into action -- ferried supplies to far-more-stricken-than-us areas of Long Island and New Jersey.

That's how we dealt when nature struck with a vengeance. There were too many days of board games, too many nights spent in too-early darkness and under too many blankets. There was plenty of complaining -- most of it directed at Connecticut Light and Power -- but there was plenty of praise, too. We appreciated more than ever our police, firefighters, EMTs, CERT volunteers, Human Services staff, even the Chartwells food service workers at the Long Lots emergency shelter.

We elevated Nate Gibbons to cult hero status. We don't wish another natural disaster on anyone, but if another strikes Westport, we take comfort knowing we'll be soothed by the calm, rational, even occasionally humorous words of the world's favorite fire inspector.

But Hurricane Sandy was easy, compared with what happened when the intersection of mental illness and too-easy access to guns struck less than two months later.

Once again, we discovered a side of ourselves we didn't know -- or weren't sure -- existed. Staples High School guidance counselors spent several days at Newtown's crisis center, helping soothe the shattered nerves of children, adults, the entire town.

Police officers spent off-duty hours doing whatever they could. They directed traffic, played with children, dealt with the public, took the burden off their overburdened, overstressed and overworked colleagues in blue half an hour north. They were joined by officers from departments around the state, and like their colleagues, ours did not want their efforts publicized. Just being there was all that counted, they said. But just by being there, they made all of us realize how much we count on them, every day and in every way.

Elementary school children in our town made green ribbons for children in Newtown. Staples students baked 1,200 chocolate chip cookies, for delivery to funeral-goers and first responders. Two hundred Westporters packed Christ & Holy Trinity Church to take the first steps toward reducing gun access, advancing access to mental health professionals, and figuring out where we as a town, a state and a country go from here.

Everyone in Westport knows someone in Newtown -- or knows someone who does. Our kids and their kids are sports rivals. Our town and theirs share similar New England looks and traits, though it's fair to say that Newtown is more like the Westport of 30 years ago than the Westport of today.

Adopting a popular refrain, banners and websites proudly declared, "We are Newtown." The world stood solidly with that shattered town -- well, at least that part of the world that did not occupy positions of power within the NRA -- but we in Westport stood slightly closer than others. Newtown is a neighboring town. And we know (though we don't dare say it) that what happened there could just as easily have happened here.

A week ago today, according to a Mayan prediction that 99 percent of us figured was 99 percent ridiculous, the world was supposed to end.

It didn't happen.

Thank God. Thank goodness. Or thank whatever else you believe in.

The world still turns. And Westport, Newtown -- and the world -- have a lot more living to do.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.