Lessons Learned from Harvey

A guest post from my wife, Melinda Little:

Last week on the way to work someone cut me off. When I tapped my horn because I was afraid the driver had not seen me, he flipped me off. Then, later, I commented on someone’s Facebook post with some information about restoration efforts. It was just informational, but it was taken as a partisan comment. I realized then the beautiful time during and after Harvey — where differences mattered less than the people with whom we endured the storm — was ending.

Devastation and Magic

Despite the devastation, it was kind of alessons learned Harvey boat magical time when we all focused our efforts on our neighbors. In my whole life I do not remember seeing this kind of reaction before. Whether a flood victim or not, folks headed out to help. When the news began to report that we would have fifty inches of rainfall in just a couple of days, our elected leaders called for neighbors to use their personal boats for rescue. There was no call to sign up on some website to get certified, but just a call for all hands to show up. I personally knew a couple of people who answered this call. They used their boats or kayaks to go out and rescue others from rising floodwaters – loading up neighbors from their flooded-out homes, pulling them to safety. It was an unsure safety, but at least for this day they would not die by drowning.

lessons learned Harvey clothesAs one day became three — and then five — the altruism that our neighbors exhibited to one another was overwhelming. People offered shelter to strangers, drove up and down streets in neighborhoods they likely had never been before, serving food to countless unregistered volunteers who were also helping other Houstonians they had never met before to muck out wet debris that just a week ago had been treasured possessions. Mounds and mounds of clothes were donated to help those who lost literally everything.

What Came Before

lessons learned Harvey Vivi

Shameless use of photo of granddaughter #ViviBelleFlynn

This was in stark contrast to the election cycle just months before: when friends, neighbors and strangers in Houston were angrily divided by their political beliefs. Personally, I was becoming more and more disenchanted, wondering if we would ever come back to a time when politics did not define who you were as human being.

I had noticed it was difficult to have a different opinion than others with whom you socialized, attended church and worked. Even families were divided. Russell and quit watching the news because a simple disagreement on the process of a proposed solution to healthcare or some other hot topic could deteriorate our evening into an angry silence. The worst part is that the differences between each of us are usually not disagreements about the problem, but disagreements about the solution.

lessons learned Harvey Russell helpThe Silver Lining

The silver lining of the most devastating natural disaster to ever hit the Texas coast – at least for Houston – is that for  two weeks we remembered what it was like to work together. We remembered that the problems that existed in that moment were everyone’s. It was literally life and death. There was no time to spend arguing over the solution. There was no time to dehumanize those who disagreed with us. We just helped as best we could. If you didn’t have boat, you went to a shelter to offer a blanket and a sympathetic ear. If you had a hammer or a crowbar you showed up and mucked houses of friends and strangers or you made sandwiches, bought cases of water and donated it to a shelter or drove and up down streets delivering it to anyone who needed it.

lessons learned Harvey beachSadly, that beautiful moment is passing. We are no longer in that bubble we lived in all too briefly. We are now left to recover and we are feeling alone. The hard conversations in the wake of destruction have begun because they need to happen, but fear of the unknown is once again leading us to a place of blame and distrust. We are moving back to our recent past where we assume the worst of our leaders and of each other. The national media has moved on to the next big story. There is a lot going on in our world to cover after all: from multiple national disasters to North Korea. These stories add to our unsure future. and leave us feeling even more alone as Houston is left picking up the pieces.

Moving Forward

As we do move forward, I want to hold on to those few days in late August and early September when we worked as one. I want to try to hang on to that moment when we just cared about helping whoever needed it. I want to remember that for a few days the Houston area became a community that the nation watched in awe as we altruistically helped each other in the face of devastation. Most importantly, I want to remember that we do not always have to agree with each other in order to love one another and to help one other. I want to remember that discussing problems and their various solutions openly with civility and inclusion will actually help us to be a better community.

We do not always have to agree, and I know we won’t, but there was a time in my lifetime when our elected leaders were actually friends with those across the aisle. My dad was one of those elected leaders. Those friendships made having hard conversations more productive. It has been lovely to see this among our local leaders and it would be great to see this nationally. I remember a time when our neighbors were not so neatly sorted by political philosophy or party; when how you voted mattered less than how you lived your life everyday. There was even a time when compromise was not a dirty word. I want to remember we have much more in common than we don’t. I am planning to do my best to hang on to those few days when we all just hung on to each other. I want to remember what #HoustonStrong means.

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