Times of crisis tend to reveal the character of a community.
With the passage of time, Houston will be remembered as a city devastated by the catastrophic ravages of Hurricane Harvey, a very nasty chap of a storm.
But in the here and now, Houston also has become a vivid symbol of what we have known to be true. Long before it became a campaign slogan, America never needed to become “Great Again.” For all our bickering and polarized politics, there always has been the beating heart of greatness in the body politic.
You can gauge greatness in terms of military might, or economic power, or the reach of a nation’s ideals and culture. There’s something to be said for all of that.
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Or you can measure greatness by the inherent goodness of the souls of the people.
Houston and southeast Texas are a mess. It will take years, perhaps decades, for the area to recover from the damage inflicted by Harvey. And it will take untold sums of billions and billions of dollars to cover the costs of rebuilding.
But over the past week, the nation and the rest of the world also has been witness to the meaning of the kindness of strangers in the face of unspeakable horror.
In a sense, Houston became an American Dunkirk.
As the flood levels grew and local emergency first responders found themselves overwhelmed by the scope of the rising waters, citizens took it upon themselves to help. They didn’t need to be asked. They simply acted.
Boats of every size appeared. Canoes. Water scooters. Any form of craft that could float took to the streets to save lives, manned by people with no particular experience or training in rescue techniques but nonetheless willing to put their own welfare at risk for the sake of others.
Many local businesses stepped up to offer aid and comfort to the displaced.
And in what might be the most vivid symbol of civic responsibility, Jim McIngvale, a small businessman who owns Gallery Furniture, opened up his stores (including one 100,000-square-foot showroom) to anyone who needed shelter, sacrificing his inventory.
In an interview with National Public Radio, McIngvale, who promotes himself as Mattress Mack, explained: “The people of Texas are resilient, as are the people of this country. And, you know, my daughter’s favorite saying is if not for my struggle, I would not have known my strength.”
McIngvale is right about that, taking pains not to engage in stereotypical Texas bravado as he noted helping others in distress is not a regional virtue.
We’ve seen this sort of compassion many times before, whether in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the suffering imposed on the people who live in the Midwest’s tornado alley, or earthquakes in California. Mother Nature can be cruel. But her children can be feisty, too.