Op-Ed: Those closest to a disaster tend to show best how to respond

I was driving on sand-covered roads, beneath downed power lines and past a giant floating casino pushed onto the shore within a day of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast in late August 2005. Our sister newspaper in Gulfport, Mississippi, needed help as they covered their trashed community and dealt with their homes after a 26-foot swell of water flooded them.

I saw firsthand what the response to a disaster looks like.

There were government pronouncements and press conferences, but days stretched into weeks as people waited. No one seemed to be in charge, and the more distant the government unit the more it obstructed rather than helped.

What did work were things closest to the disaster. Help came from locals helping locals. It came from churches and charities. And it came from private businesses.

Neighborhoods became tribes, with one woman on a camp stove cooking a big pot of stew for anyone who came. The local Missionary Baptist church was a center for supplies, relief and volunteer labor after networking with out-of-state churches. Walmart quickly came in with cash and supplies, after navigating the federal blockade, and Home Depot quickly got building materials into residents’ hands.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a very different disaster, but there are similar patterns. Disaster again pulls together communities – even when its members are told to keep their distance. And disaster lays bare our weaknesses.

Social distancing requires that we place to-go orders to keep our local eateries viable, on the “Great American Take Out Day” and later. Quarantines may mean caring for elderly relatives using video calls to undo the isolation. Those with sewing skills offer to make masks. Moms and youngsters place a rose on each car at Highland Park Hospital to thank weary health care workers.

Food banks are rethinking how they safely serve a growing need, with shortages creating purchasing challenges at the same time jobless ranks are swelling and children are home all day. Private companies are responding, with automakers volunteering to retool for production of ventilators and personal protective equipment.

The government closest to people again seems to work best, with schools providing lunches for students even while classrooms are closed. Gloved workers at Chatham Elementary, near Springfield, Illinois, hand sacks with breakfasts and lunches out the back door of the school when parents drive up.

With the death toll climbing past 1,100 in the U.S., our communities, our institutions and government are critical to handling COVID-19. The individual choices we make every day will curb or aggravate the pandemic. Then the policies we collectively pursue will either let us bounce back or aggravate the economic disaster.

The pandemic is still new but already there has been plenty to make us cringe: partisan games and personal hoarding topping the list. But disaster shows us something else about our species, something that Fred Rogers’ mom was wise enough to see.

When her small son saw scary things on the news, she would say: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

You may not need to look far during this scary time. That helper may even be you.

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