Harvey’s heroes: America at its best?
“A dozen years after Hurricane Katrina, the images were eerily familiar,” said Eliott McLaughlin in CNN.com: “People stranded on rooftops, disoriented families wading through rib-high waters,” their homes submerged under the torrent of Gulf water unleashed by Hurricane Harvey. Houston was drowning. Then “the cavalry arrived in the form of American altruism.” In the days after Harvey, thousands of first responders, volunteers, and neighbors raced to save stranded Texans, carrying off grandmothers and children “no matter their race or religion or politics.” Rescuers used canoes, kayaks, rowboats, even air mattresses and pool floats to pull people out of the flood—“a spontaneous Dunkirk,” said Peggy Noonan in WSJ.com. That selfless, inspiring effort kept the death toll miraculously low—below 100, compared with Katrina’s loss of more than 1,800 lives. It also reminded us, in a time of great political strife and division, that “the American spirit is alive in Texas.”
Not to “diminish the bighearted men and women who rose to the occasion,” said Katy Waldman in Slate.com, but during disasters, displays of compassion and selflessness are fairly common, according to social scientists. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires—they all feel “mythic,” and heighten people’s sense of community and heroism. Harvey didn’t reveal the “best of America”; it was “a beautiful anomaly” that showed a “contingent America, a ‘paradise’ specific to the ‘hell’ around it.” When the floodwaters recede, expect Houston’s “cooperative society” to vanish with them, and the usual divisions of race, ethnicity, class, and partisan loyalty to return, as survivors compete for disaster aid and scarce resources.
How cynical, said Alcestis Cooky Oberg in USA Today. I’ve lived in the Houston area for 42 years, and our community spirit is real. When the floodwaters washed into my family home in Dickinson, “I heard from more than 100 friends and relatives offering us their homes, their help, their prayers, and everything they had.” Their reaction was “immediate and overwhelming”— and it represented “just a tiny microcosm of what was happening on an enormous scale throughout Houston and Texas.” Hurricane Harvey brought “horrific destruction,” but it also uncovered “how heroic Americans innately are, and how divisions between us don’t really matter.” Yes, we’ll always fight over artificial differences, like politics. But “the simple and undeniable truth is that we’re all in this together.” ■