Twelve years ago today Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans. The Category 5 storm ravaged the area with particular death and destruction in the Lower 9th Ward. More than 1,800 people died. Most of them were poor African Americans whose lives were largely ignored because they were not fortunate enough to have been born privileged or live in the more attractive neighborhoods of New Orleans. The loss of life in Katrina was in large part a result of racial injustice by a community made up of far too many who lacked sufficient empathy, care, compassion and basic decency to work to save ALL of their fellow New Orleanians not just the ones that looked like them.
Fast forward to August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, VA when the ugliness of racial animus and hatred reared its head in the shadow of the home of the author of the U.S. Constitution. The images of neo-Nazis, White Supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members marching, battling, beating and ultimately murdering set off renewed conversation about the myth that we live in a post-racial period in our history. Nothing could be further from the truth as demonstrated by the vile and hideous comments of the 45th President who failed repeatedly to put a stake in the heart of racism and to unequivocally lay blame for the Charlottesville tragedy where it belonged.
But the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey and the unfathomable devastation caused by the flooding of the Texas Gulf Coast ironically revealed the proverbial silver lining from within a very dark and tragic cloud.
Goodness often comes in the wake of grief, anguish and loss. I know this to be true having lived through two floods. Watching the horrific scenes of the Texas floods brings back the terrible memories of the 1959 and 1961 floods in my hometown of Hull, MA. Our home was seriously flooded twice in 13 months with water from the Bay during two violent Nor’easters. During the first flood I was just 11 years old and I was home alone when the flood waters started to rise through the floor boards. Eventually I was rescued by the Coast Guard but their amphibious boat was not able to get close enough to the front door because of a chain link fence in our front yard. I had to wade through neck high freezing water to get to the boat. Everything in our home was lost and we were displaced for nearly a year. And then 13 months later, after having been back in our home a very short time, the same thing happened again. This time I was home with my parents because it was the day of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Once again everything was lost including our car. Those memories and images are seared into my mind like it was yesterday. But as awful as those events were I am to this day grateful to the local Hull families who took us in and let us stay with them for very long periods of time.
The memories of basic goodness I experienced as a child victim of floods are refreshed now as I watch the extraordinary acts of humanity by so many ordinary people in Houston who are risking and sacrificing much to make repeated efforts to rescue those stranded in rising flood waters. It is hard not to be moved by the scenes of endless trips by a flotilla of privately owned watercraft piloted by citizens who are determined to reach those in need with no regard to the race, faith or beliefs of the people they are helping. Whites saving blacks. Blacks saving Latinos. Christians saving Muslims. It is a tapestry for compassion that has been color blind by the words and actions of community leaders and folks who just want to extend a hand of friendship and humanity.
The relief efforts are not just the silver cloud for Houston and South Texas but a show of unity that is needed now more than ever. No one wishes for a disaster but if one is to come it is heartening to know that something good can come out of what is so bad. The efforts of cable news reporters to not just cover the story but repeatedly become rescuers themselves is proof positive that that the media is more often part of the solution and not the problem. We didn’t need Harvey to convince us that journalists do not deserve to be painted as “Fake News” by the President.
Houston will re-build. It will survive and eventually thrive again. And when some sense of normalcy returns, which may take months or even years, Hurricane Harvey’s legacy may best be remembered not for the devastation it caused but for the message of unity and harmony it has sent. Disparate parts of a community who, without even knowing it, have beaten back racial and religious tensions and intolerance at a time when their help was needed not just by the local flood victims but by an entire nation.
We should all feel a deep debt of gratitude to every first responder, community leader, faith-based and charitable organization and ordinary citizen who has shown their true mettle and humanity. Their actions during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey far exceeds what has been done to heal the local community. They have helped to heal an entire nation.