When Disasters Strike America, Common Decency Is Still Pretty Common

When Disasters Strike America, Common Decency Is Still Pretty Common

Tornado raging across Arkansas on April 3, 2023

The TV meteorologist kept saying the tornado would strike the University Medical Center at 2:30 P.M. and Arkansas Children's Hospital three minutes later. If so, we’d have taken a direct hit some time in between. I kept watching the radar and telling my wife that the accursed thing would pass us to the north and west. I’ve always been a map guy, and I know that tornadoes track southwest to northeast.

Then I went out on the front porch and heard the SOB roar by. I couldn’t see it for the trees. Missed us by maybe three miles, our sons by about one. Here at the house, our lights never even flickered. What a tornado sounds like, if you’ve never had the experience, is a thunderstorm pulled by a freight train. A strong thunderstorm and a long freight train.

Last time the sirens had gone off, Diane hid in our bedroom closet. I’d kept watching my ballgame. Whenever there’s been a tornado threat, I’ve always pointed to our 100-year-old brick home and the huge ancient oak trees all around—Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood is basically an oversized squirrel sanctuary—and observed that I like my chances.

After a while, I’d heard faint cries from the bedroom, where my wife had gotten herself wedged into the dirty clothes basket and was having trouble getting out. I’d been teasing her about it for a week.

Silly girl, hiding in a closet. Next time, however, Mr. Knowzit here might join her there. Large swaths of Little Rock were devastated by the storm, although the death toll was small—probably thanks to the sirens and the efforts of TV meteorologists so easy to mock when the sun is shining.

Huge trees went down all over town. Thousands have lost their homes, and the power’s still out across much of the area.

Back when I taught bookish, med school-bound undergraduates, I used to emphasize that civilization depends upon the efforts of the laboring classes: without somebody to provide clean water, operate the sewage system and haul away garbage, we comfortable ones wouldn’t be comfortable at all. Orwell wrote the same thing about British coal miners.

I thought of it as an homage to my uncle Tommy Connors, a plumber and Korean War veteran who babysat me as a child --- often in bars.

Today I’d add the hardworking men and women from all over the region--Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Tennessee — who are up in hydraulic buckets all over central Arkansas splicing the wires and returning the rest of us to civilization. Me, I spent the long weekend watching even more ballgames than usual. For us, the biggest inconvenience has been not being able to get to the city Dog Park. Evidently there are still hot wires lying across the access road.

Meanwhile, one of the very few benefits of old age is that nobody expects you to show up at a disaster scene with a chainsaw—a good thing, because I no longer own either the tools or a pickup truck to carry them in. I got rid of all that when we moved back to the city six years ago. Besides, I’d only get in the way

My friend Philip Martin has some thoughts on the subject in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Let’s not get schmaltzy about this,” he writes. “Tragedy is not an occasion for inspiration. Most people see this as just what you do — if someone needs your help, you help. A lot of us are that way. It’s one good thing about our species. When it gets real, we usually dig down and do what we have to do…. Maybe no one deserves a cookie for helping out, maybe it’s just common decency, but sometimes we need to be reminded that common decency is fairly common.”

All of which brings me by an even more circuitous path than usual to a political observation: All this talk about an impending civil war in American between the “red tribe” and the “blue tribe” is being uttered by people who take social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — far too seriously.

I yield to nobody in my disdain for Boss Trump, nor his Arkansas mini-me, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. And, yes, she’s being more than a little bit disingenuous calling Democrats “communists” one minute and then petitioning President Biden for emergency disaster help the next

But I can’t agree with a hyper-political Democratic correspondent in Albany, New York who says Biden shouldn’t give Arkansas a dime. For one thing, it’s her bamboozled constituents who need help, not Sanders herself. Also, if it mattered, which it certainly doesn’t, the city of Little Rock voted decisively against both Trump and Sanders during the 2020 election.

But most of the guys running their chain saws and rebuilding the city’s power grid probably didn’t. When push comes to shove, we’re all in it together.

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