Guest Essay, Published in the Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY Sept. 6, 2017
On September 15, 2001 my wife and I were on the first flight from Boston, MA to Cleveland, OH. The Boston Logan Airport had been closed and all air travel across the United Sates had been halted since the terrorist attacks that occurred just four days earlier. I had picked up a copy of the Boston newspaper to read during the flight.
I will never forget the lead editorial for that day’s edition. It made the point that when survivors began to emerge from the World Trade Center in New York City just before both towers collapsed, you could not tell if they were black or white, Asian or any other distinct ethnic group, because they were all covered in the same heavy dust and debris created by the burning buildings from which they were emerging. You could not tell which persons were Roman Catholic, or Protestant, or non-believers. You could not tell which ones were Jewish or Muslim or any other religion or nationality.
All you could see were people covered in dirt and dust who were survivors of a terrorist attack and the horrific suffering and trauma that came in its aftermath. On September 11, 2001 catastrophe knew no color.
The same was true in Houston and throughout the Gulf Coast over the last week. Hurricane Harvey did not reserve its wrath for any one group of residents. It was an “equal opportunity” destroyer. From the most prosperous neighborhoods of our nation’s fourth largest city, to the most impoverished streets lined with public housing and mobile home parks, catastrophe knew no color.
The owners and managers of oil refineries were impacted as directly as the lowest wage employees in those facilities. Police officers and even members of Congress were flooded and forced out of their homes right alongside tens of thousands of private citizens. Their income, their social status, their political affiliation did not determine who would be impacted and who would be spared. Hurricane Harvey was a catastrophe that knew no color.
It must be noted, that the spirit of neighbor helping neighbor and stranger helping stranger also became color-blind. While the world saw the worst that nature can wreak upon the earth, we also saw the best of humanity. Homes were opened up to shelter those whose own homes were submerged in water. People could be seen risking their own lives in an attempt to come to the aid of another person perched on a rooftop, or trapped inside a flooding car, or being carried away by water and currents that had turned city streets into flowing rivers.
All of this happened without any regard for color, or religion, or immigrant status, or sexual orientation. Human compassion became as color-blind as the catastrophe that had caused so much suffering.
It struck me that less than a month ago, I was sitting in the hotel right across the street from the George Brown Convention Center in Houston. Over 10,000 persons found shelter in that convention center in the immediate aftermath of the flooding. When I was in Houston two weeks earlier, the news was all about Charlottesville, Virginia and a hate-filled rally where young white men were waving swastikas and confederate battle flags as they tried to prevent a statue of Robert E. Lee from being removed.
Just two weeks after that rally that created so much division in our country, those ugly images of torch-carrying white supremacists and neo-Nazis were swept away like the homes and businesses in the Gulf Coast as the nation focused its attention on the catastrophe and the human compassion that knew no color.
Which America will emerge once the flood waters have receded and life begins to assume some normalcy in and around Houston? Will we return to a nation that has allowed itself to be divided by color since its inception in 1776, or will we hold onto the spirit of neighborliness and human kindness brought on by the catastrophe that knew no color?
As was the case after 9/11, we can return to our ancient divisions and well nursed grievances, or we can look around after this hurricane roared throughout all regions of the Gulf Coast and realize that in times of national crisis we become one nation. Perhaps we can remain this way; “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Time will tell which course we choose to follow.