The upside of a crisis

It took a natural disaster to do what no movement could, in a few days.

Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast of Texas and hit Houston particularly hard over the past several days, claiming lives and destroying homes and properties beyond counting at this point. Because at this point, it’s not over.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Administrator Brock Long said. “Texas has never seen an event like this.”

That’s what my guests on radio said Monday, after three days of Harvey’s battering set new records with torrential downpours measured in feet, not inches and caused catastrophic, life-threatening flooding ‘of biblical proportions’ according to ongoing accounts and projections for the near and even long term future.

Long said earlier that FEMA will likely be in Texas for years, and that Harvey will require one of the largest recovery housing efforts the nation has ever seen.

 

Harvey will likely surpass 2008’s Hurricane Ike and 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison, two of the most destructive storms to hit the Gulf Coast in recent memory, he said. Millions of people from Corpus Christi to New Orleans were under flood watches and warnings Monday as Harvey’s storm bands repeatedly pummeled the same areas.

 

“The word catastrophic does not appropriately describe what we’re facing,” said US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. “We just don’t know when it’s going to end.”

 

Early Monday, Harvey was barely clinging to tropical storm status, but the danger is far from over. The storm is forecast to head southeast toward the Matagorda Bay and Gulf of Mexico, where it will pick up additional moisture before sliding back over Galveston and Houston, cities it has already hammered…

 

Even when the rain is gone, dangers will persist, said National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, because “the flooding will be very slow to recede.”

 

The Pentagon is also identifying resources, including trucks, aircraft and troops, that can be dispatched for hurricane relief if the request comes, defense officials said, and Gov. Greg Abbott has activated the entire Texas National Guard, roughly 12,000 Guardsmen, he said Monday.

Throughout Tuesday, the crisis grew. The slow moving storm had shattered records for rainfall and heights of floodwaters, and sheer numbers of desperate citizens in need of relief. And that was before Hurricane Harvey was expected to swing back for a second landfall on the same battered Texas region by Wednesday.

People are battered along with the land. They have crisis fatigue, they’re frightened and have lost personal property, possibly everything they had, have stood on roofs or tops of cars or waded through waist high water with all sorts of hazards underneath, just to survive. Life has taken on new meaning. And so has the sense of what is important.

This comes when the country has crisis fatigue. We’ve had months of politically charged partisan and ideological battles not only without common sense or common ground, but with people focused distinctly on not ceding ground to political or ideological opponents. It has been bitter, divisive, toxic and noxious.

In the first few days of a natural disaster that threatens more harm to people in its path, Americans of all sorts have raced from their homes and towns to help fellow Americans suffering from the wrath not of political, social or cultural storms of hatred or discrimination or intolerance but of the sheer force of a raging storm of nature. The ‘Us’ grew to all people in harm’s way, and the ‘Other’ was the relentless invading Hurricane Harvey.

With news crews planted and traversing the storm ravaged areas to update reporting on latest damage estimates and newest surge of floodwater and worst areas hit by relentless rain, horrified viewers couldn’t miss the battalions of relief workers also pouring in, and average citizens racing private boats and trucks to the scene to rescue people and deliver supplies and bring relief.

In a flash one particular moment, I remembered a comment from my sons’ childhood when Fred Rogers of ‘Mister Rogers Neighborhood‘ fame told an interviewer this:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

That has been a saving grace in these scary days, the countless people helping countless people, without a clue to their identities or politics, ethnicity or religion.

This is the way it should be. And the way it is. Read that, all of it. And it’s only a glimpse of a much larger presence of helpers.

There’s the ‘Cajun Navy‘, among so many other relief workers.

The Cajun Navy is part of an armada of private boats that have descended on the Houston area after authorities asked for help from those who could potentially navigate the treacherous floodwaters across a massive swath of southeast Texas in search of residents. Many boaters from east Texas and west Louisiana streamed to the outskirts of the disaster until they could drive no more, switching over to boats to go door to door seeking out the stranded.

 

Painful and haunting memories of Hurricane Katrina run deep in what’s informally known as the “Cajun corridor,” between Texas and Louisiana. During Katrina, hundreds of Texans did just what Bloodsworth did, crossed the border and even the Sabine River to help rescue teams in New Orleans…

 

“I vividly remember that many Texans came to Louisiana’s aid, which was incredible to me,” said Taylor Aucoin, who is in Baton Rouge working with an app, called Zello, that allows her and her husband to radio in rescue requests to volunteers on the ground in Texas. “I can’t really describe the heartbreak that I feel now for Texans. It’s a very small thing we can do from here to kind of repay the favor for the help we received last year and countless other times.”

The headline of that news story said they’re ‘paying it forward’.

“It’s just what we do for each other.”

Said one member of the Cajun Navy.

“Just the way we were brought up,” he said. “You help your neighbor.”

And keep the effort going.

It takes a natural disaster

…to reorder our priorities. Like surviving a storm to live another day.

The latest (as of this writing) is St. Louis. And this deserves attention.

The St. Louis area’s most powerful tornado in 44 years rips into an airport and through a densely populated suburban area, destroying up to 100 homes, shattering hundreds of panes of glass at the main terminal and blowing a shuttle bus on top of a roof. Yet no one is killed, or even seriously hurt, and the airport reopens less than 24 hours later. How?

Early warnings, good timing and common sense all helped prevent a tragedy Friday night. But on Easter Sunday, many of those cleaning up the mess also thanked a higher power.

“I don’t know why God decided to spare our lives but I’m thankful for it,” Joni Bellinger, children’s minister at hard-hit Ferguson Christian Church, said Sunday.

This was an oft-repeated refrain. The facts support it.

The tornado peaked at an EF-4 level, second-highest on the Enhanced Fujita scale, packing winds of up to 200 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Wes Browning said. It was the most powerful twister in metropolitan St. Louis since 1967 – and eerily, it followed a path similar to that of the earlier tornado.

Entire subdivisions were destroyed. Cars were tossed about like toys, roofs tossed hundreds of yards and 100-year-old trees sucked out by the roots.

County officials said during a news conference Sunday that 2,700 buildings were damaged. Gov. Jay Nixon said Saturday that up to 100 were uninhabitable…

The twister destroyed two of the homes John Stein owns on a street in the city of Berkeley, and damaged five others. “Everything you’d find in a war zone except the bodies,” Stein said.

And yet…

Yet the common refrain was: It could have been worse. Stuff was destroyed, not lives…

Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers believes divine intervention also was at work…”The grace of God,” Bowers said. “What else can I say?”

Enough said. Other than maybe ‘Amen.’

Lessons from nature

The storms of life, natural disasters or manmade, teach us a lot about ourselves. Like how much we don’t control, and how well we handle adversity. We’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn them lately…

How’d we do, folks in those regions hit by back-to-back violent outbursts of nature?

Tales in the aftermath. Of cyclone Yasi

On Mission Beach, power cables crashed on to the roads and mature trees and palms were toppled by surging winds but local residents also reported a surreal half-hour in the calm eye of the storm, when they popped outside with torches, checked up on neighbours and gazed at the momentarily clear sky.

See that? People are looking in on their neighbors, checking on who needs help, even when everyone is under threat. Especially when everyone is under threat. Crisis brings out the best in us.

And there are these amazing stories

A baby was born at a Cairns evacuation centre and two more in Innisfail Hospital amid the chaos and devastation as Cyclone Yasi hammered north Queensland overnight.

Cairns councillor Linda Cooper says Akiko Pruss went into labour at the evacuation centre at Redlynch State College at 2:45am…

An English midwife called Carol, who is celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary on holidays in Cairns, delivered the baby, Ms Cooper said.

Then there are the tales from the ‘monster storm’, at the height of the blizzard

The family huddled together in their car for a couple hours. But then the car battery went dead, Wu said.

With no emergency responders in sight, Wu’s husband ran to the car parked behind his and asked if they could take in his daughter and pregnant wife.

Wu said she was grateful for the woman’s generosity, but was still scared once they relocated to the warmer car because both her and her husband’s cell phones were dead.

“I just worried about my husband and being separated,” said Wu…

And love finds a way in this otherwise dreadful story…

In cars, after watching their gas gauges falling, drivers tried desperately to keep their vehicles idling long enough with heaters on full blast to warm them up before turning off the ignition to keep from running out of gas.

People called family and friends on cell phones, as much to get information and ask to be rescued as relay what was going on — mostly because nobody knew.

Carolyn Pirotte, a 28-year-old nurse, just waited in her car and talked to her husband on the cell phone. He caught a ride as far as he could get, then started walking. He peered into windows until he spotted her just before midnight, six hours after her ordeal began.

He climbed in and waited with her for three hours until firefighters took them to a warming center at a nearby hospital.

It happens in times of disaster, when people are threatened or hurt or worse. We call our loved ones and tell them we love them. We check with family members and look in on neighbors. We reach out to assist what some would call absolute strangers, but in times of crisis there are no strangers. The Chicago blizzard tales include the one where the woman finally got home, after hours of being stranded on the road, and two men spent over an hour digging out a space to park her car. The news report called them “two absolute strangers.”

Nature continues to be very, very strange. But for all the catastrophe it wreaks, human nature continually proves to be a reassuring constant.