Stewart Beckett Sr. was born into a different world than the one you and I live in. He came into being in 1898 not far from St. Petersburg, Florida. The family wasn’t wealthy, but they were reasonably well off. Which is to say they lived in a house, ate on a regular basis, and managed to survive the maladies of the day — at least most of them did. Not all of his siblings survived to become adults.
His world was a harder place than mine is. Not because natural disasters have ceased to be, or because human beings are inherently more kind-hearted today, but because technology has delivered us from the truly brutal hardships of day-to-day existence.
That’s a double-edged sword, of course. Because we are so fortunate in this modern world we tend to forget how difficult life was before the advent of the modern conveniences we take for granted. When my grandfather was a child there was no light switch to snap on if you heard a noise in the night. Water was generally unsafe to drink, and dying of starvation or exposure was a real possibility for much of the population.
Saddest of all may be the reality that for most of the population their hardship was permanent. There was no easy escape. My granddad didn’t see a car until he was 10 years old. He was 16 when the first airline service was established, and that only extended a few short miles across Tampa Bay. Granddad was in his 20s before he lived in a place where electricity was reasonably common and the main roads were paved.
I mention all this because there is a reason good ol’ granddad’s generation would wish to have had an airport, had such a thing existed in his youth. And that reason is as simple as can be: Survival.
No, that’s not hyperbole. In 2004 when three hurricanes passed through the county I live in, the destruction was mind-numbing. Many central Floridians were thrown back into the late 19th century overnight. Suddenly with no electricity to run air-conditioners, keep refrigerators operating, or pump well water to the surface, hundreds of thousands of people found out first-hand that life is hard without technology. Without electricity it’s hard to maintain a safe food supply, or store drugs many of us need to stay alive.
Relief came to us by air, as it does when disaster strikes these days. The airports of central Florida became clearing houses for manpower and supplies that were flown in from all over the country. Without airports, our plight would have lasted considerably longer and the loss of life would have been higher.
That last sentence is the crux of the issue. Aviation can and does deliver salvation in the midst of a catastrophe. The airport is your lifeline. It is the best insurance policy you will ever have. Towns with airports receive aid quicker and more effectively than those without.
The example above aside, survival isn’t a goal that’s unique to Floridians. The San Francisco earthquake of 1989 collapsed bridges, broke water lines, and cut power to vast numbers of people. When wildfires expanded throughout the Cleveland National Forest outside San Diego in 2003, 25 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands of acres were devastated. When Hurricane Katrina came ashore in 2005, roads were impassable, homes were flooded, and all modern conveniences were swept away with the winds and rain. In each of these cases, aviation allowed aid to be delivered and residents to be evacuated. Airports saved lives. Let me say that again because it matters more than most might think: Airports saved lives.
Think of it this way, if you will: We don’t have air-bags in our cars today because they’re pretty or suggest status. We don’t get mammograms, and colonoscopies, pap smears, and prostate exams because they’re fun. We do it because it can protect us from an ugly fate.
In most towns we fund firefighting services even though we are careful at home and expect to never personally need them. We fund police departments, although we hope to never have to call for help ourselves. And we all want a well staffed and well equipped hospital nearby, even though we watch what we eat and exercise in the hopes we will never be a patient there. That’s the beauty of modern society. We don’t just hunker down and hope for the best, we prepare for the worst because we know the truth. Bad things are coming our way and it’s better to be prepared in advance than to be caught off guard when the bad thing happens.
Will earthquakes, mud slides, tsunamis, wild-fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods still afflict us into the future? Yes. They absolutely will. We can’t prevent those things from happening. But we can prepare ourselves to meet the challenge quickly, efficiently, and humanely.
And airports play a major role in that process. Airports and the aircraft that operate out of them will save millions of us in the coming years. There is no question of that. What is debatable is whether you will be one of those saved should disaster strike your town. The answer to that question may very possibly depend on your proximity to an airport that you can count on in a time of real need.