No doubt about it, natural disasters can leave unbelievably widespread devastation but they can also push people to rise to an occasion and achieve noble ideals. In times of crisis, people who focus on helping others develop well deserved, sterling reputations. In the long run, those wonderful reputations are far more precious than mere dollars.
In other words, character counts. By standing up and saying, “I’m here to help,” we stretch our abilities to grow in compassion. This comes back to bless us in turn!
One of the most inspiring instances of this occurred way back in 1906 following the devastating San Francisco earthquake. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed. The ensuing fires lasted for several days and caused even more devastation. The economic impact is said to be comparable to the much more recent destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
Not surprisingly, many people lost access to their money because banks were unable to open their fire-damaged vaults—and many banks were unwilling to pay out the cash they had on hand, which made matters even worse.
Giannini & the Bank of Italy during Financial Meltdowns
Remember, this was well before Congress created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. When banks failed back then, depositors lost all of their money. Many banks closed, unable to fulfill their customers’ need for cash to pay bills and run businesses. Wandering around with cash in their pockets or hiding it at home under the mattresses, innocent people became easy prey for marauding pillagers and thieves.
In the midst of all this, A.P. Giannini stepped up to the plate and hit what eventually became a home run since he was determined to help others. He refused to close what was then called the Bank of Italy — and would later come to be known as the Bank of America.
Instead, immediately after the earthquake, Giannini moved the money from the bank to his home outside the fire zone in then-rural San Mateo. Scared of thieves, he stashed the currency under a layer of refuse in a borrowed garbage truck belonging to an Italian immigrant. Because other banks remained closed for weeks, Giannini was one of the few able to provide loans.
To bolster public confidence, it is reported that Giannini stacked up cash and gold bullion behind the tellers and hired armed guards to protect this stockpile. He allowed depositors to withdraw as much money as they wanted and provided safekeeping for the balance left in the bank. His determination to allow withdrawals without question built up public confidence in his bank. Before long, word spread that his bank was safe and deposits started rolling in.
Damage to his bank building meant that Giannini was forced to transact business from a plank across two barrels in the street, but run it he did, making loans on a handshake to those interested in rebuilding. Years later, he would recount with pride that every single loan was repaid!
Gianinni’s willingness to step up and help others made it possible for his customers to survive instead of fail. His courage resulted in his bank becoming one of the biggest, most successful financial institutions in the United States.
Berkowitz & Hurricane Sandy
Another great example of disaster bringing out the best in some people occurred when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. Yes, there were those who looted and took advantage of the storm’s debilitating effects to prey on others. But there were also individuals who gave generously of their time and skills, making it possible for others to carry on their lives almost normally.
One such person is Israel Berkowitz of Berkowatts Electrical in Lakewood, New Jersey. The day before the storm hit, Berkowitz made certain that all of his company’s generators were filled with gasoline and ready to be put to use during the power outages that were certain to occur.
He expected to receive calls from folks who would lose power when Sandy’s fierce winds attacked power lines. However, the last thing he expected was to be called upon to provide light so a wedding could be held during the storm!
“The blackouts started about 5 PM, says Berkowitz, “and about 6:30 I got a call for help from a local wedding hall with hundreds of guests.” Though the wedding hall had a standby generator, police had intervened and stopped unlicensed volunteers from hooking it up, insisting that a licensed electrician do the work for safety reasons.
Berkowitz made it to the hall armed with heavy-duty wire to hook up the much-needed generator. He worked for hours, first repairing an unexpected electrical fault before the generator could be hooked up and then remaining until the wedding reception’s end making sure that nothing else went wrong.
He made a gift of his services to the bride and groom, charging not one cent for all the work he had done.
Shortly thereafter, Berkowitz got a call from a nursing home where a backup generator had failed. “They told me that if I didn’t get there quickly, they were going to have to evacuate the residents,” Berkowitz says. “I called a company that did spray foam insulation and borrowed one of its trucks with a generator they used to spray on the insulation.” By 7 AM, he was at the nursing home repairing the failed generator.
That morning, about 90 percent of the town was without power, and some backup generators were not working properly. Calls poured in by the dozens. “We couldn’t supply enough generators for everyone, but when all of ours were taken, my guys went out to help people who had their own,” Berkowitz says. “We hooked up stores, supermarkets, a mechanic’s shop and private residences.”
And, Berkowitz received a call to provide power for another wedding! “We spent a whole day helping them set up, “ Berkowitz says. “That night, they had a beautiful wedding in a well-lighted building.”
As it turned out, Lakewood’s wedding halls were booked solid. Berkowitz made providing power for them a high priority. “Between nursing homes and weddings, our generators made lot of people very happy.”
Many New Jersey residents were buying portable generators, paying as much as $1500 for a machine that would normally sell for $500. Berkowitz did some research and found a company willing to sell him 10 permanent whole-house generators at a reasonable price and made them available to his customers. In the next few weeks, Berkowitz supplied generators to various schools, usually at no charge, just to help the school children. Word of his efforts spread and this has led to a growing business selling permanent generations nationwide.
Ironically, after helping numerous people and businesses regain power, Berkowitz’s own home lost power the following week. “I owned a generator, but had never hooked it up because my home had never lost power before,” he says.