Bringing Out The Best In Humanity

Susan Page
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Wednesday - September 07, 2005
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Disasters bring out the best and the worst in human nature. It’s in times of great challenge that we find out who we are as people. Helper or hinderer, hopeful or woeful, giver or taker, responsible or blaming, optimist or pessimist. Katrina, with all its furious devastation, cast a revealing light onto the character of human beings - of Americans.

Today television allows us to eye-witness human tragedies as they unfold, and if objectively reported, provides insights from which to learn. Watching the coverage throughout this cataclysmic event, and even through the shock of such a horrendous “second wave” of flooding, the small dramas, both heroic and horrendous, are what reveal the most.

I admit to being pretty hard on the television media the day Katrina was merely a slow-moving, satellite-generated blob still hours from landfall. I slammed newscasters’ near giddiness at the prospect of a major disaster - the kind that garners Emmy nominations. After such tawdry overreporting of Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson and the missing teen in Aruba, it’s easy to be cynical. I expected hours of hyperbole and predicted long faces if the storm didn’t pan out.

Then an outcome miles worse than anyone, even a drama-prone media, could’ve predicted befell the history-rich, Mardi Gras-famous city of New Orleans, as well as coastal Mississippi and Alabama. And, as it unfolded, my respect for television reporters rose like the flooding waters of Lake Pontchartrain. For once in a long while, real events drove their reports, not the other way around. They brought us stories while knee-deep in muddy water, did interviews in suffocating, steamy heat on broken freeways, risked violence inside stores being looted, and choked back tears as they witnessed tragedy after tragedy. Their reports were so truthful that when I looked out of my home office window here in Aiea, I expected to see a lake of muddy water.

“Something has to be done,” a sweat-drenched, hoarse-voiced Shepard Smith of Fox News begged. “These people are at real risk of dying out here.” His distressing report was raw emotion, not broadcast cool and scripted as professional journalism dictates. He put us viewers right there with him and stranded flood victims on that steamy, broken freeway.

Another reporter asked a man who came out of knee-deep water handing a child off to an aid worker how he was doing. “I’ve been pulling one person after another out of the water all night. I’m a little tired,” he said humbly. His home was flooded to the roof, too.

In a Mobile, Ala., neighborhood flattened by Katrina, a man described to a reporter how he felt when members of the Salvation Army showed up out of nowhere to give the survivors aid and comfort. His gratitude brought him to tears.

History tells us that as this human tragedy wears on, the media will return to manipulating events, creating stories to suit agendas, and oversensationalizing the sensational. Already a bit too much camera time has been allotted to looters and criminals gone wild, but I dearly hope the positive stories keep coming. We learn more from those who do the right things than those who do the wrong.

The best of humanity in crisis provides us examples of how to be if a cataclysmic event should occur in our community. How will we respond? Will we be prepared, heed the warnings, help our neighbors, go beyond the call? Do we have the will, the hope, the faith?

Here in Hawaii surrounded by ocean with nowhere to evacuate, we must all pay attention and heed this warning. Katrina was full of surprises, didn’t discriminate and was an equal opportunity storm. Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s antebellum home in Pascagoula was destroyed, the home of Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor near Gulfport was leveled, and the district office of Congressman Charlie Melancon was under more than 15 feet of water.

None of us is immune, but is each of us up to the challenge of a Katrina? We can be. We must be.

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