Wow! Hurricane Irma was so big that the above map of the southeast United States is almost indistinguishable, because the hurricane and its accompanying cloud bands completely obscured the entire peninsula of Florida. I would argue that the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 is the last such time that this country faced a natural disaster on this scale (especially when you combine it with the devastation of Hurricane Harvey just two short weeks ago).
At the time of the flood in 1927, it was still an open question as to whether or not the federal government would come to the aid of people facing distress caused by this kind of natural disaster. Today, there's no question that our nation's collective resources will be called into action. Despite the many challenges facing us, this is good — very good!
Millions of people in eight states were devastated by those 1927 Mississippi floods — millions flooded out and made homeless. Even in the midst of a profoundly conservative GOP administration that supported limited government, a debate occurred in which there was consensus that the response needed to be that of one nation, all of us coming together for our neighbors in other states facing down tragedy. It was partly one of those "but for the grace of God go I" moments, and I guess you could argue that this response was made partly out of self-interest, in the sense that Americans wanted to know that the government would be there for them in the future if a similar tragedy would strike them at home.
But I think it was more than this. People are good. People are altruistic. People want to do what they can for each other, even for perfect strangers, as we saw so clearly in Houston. In the words of CBS newsman Steve Hartman, who travels the country producing stories that show the best sides of us, "I think most Americans are heroes, just waiting for their moment."
There are indeed amazing things we can do as individuals, in small groups, and as communities. But moments like these are also a reminder that the USA itself is really the ultimate expression of supportive community. At times like these, we are one community, one family.
The 1927 Mississippi flood marked a sea change in the way we looked at ourselves. By the time the Depression hit, the foundation was laid for government's role in helping people get by, and back on their feet. Ten years later, the GI Bill and other social programs continued to advance people's prospects, not just facilitating their survival but helping them to overcome hardship and prejudice on the road to the realization of their dreams. That dream is still not happening for all too many people, as we've been reminded so often in recent days. But I do believe that, as the Rev. Martin Luther King prophesied, the arc of the moral universe does ultimately bend toward justice. We've been off of our game, but I think we've been reminded that we can get back on it again.
A month ago, this country was divided as it's never been before, and polls had indicated that a majority of Americans no longer considered us to be the best country in the world in which to live. Some of this is not bad — because wrongheaded America First exceptionalism has too often prevented us from seeing ourselves as members of one world community, or seeing the richness of the gifts brought to us from other lands as we built an immigrant nation.
But in these past several weeks, as we've grappled with two unprecedented hurricanes, with the fires that are spreading through the West, and so many other challenges, I think that something is changing. There is undeniable tragedy and loss, but also inspiration and pride in what we can do together.
People are coming together again, discovering the collective integrity of our character that has come out of the American experience. And perhaps this means we can now rediscover how to talk to each other. Instead of fostering further division, perhaps we can honor the strengths inherent to our diversity, but also rejoice together in all that we have in common, and can do together as a nation and with a national government. And perhaps we can also find a way to come together to counter the effects of global climate change, and a whole host of other challenges. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But now at least we can dream.
John Quinlan is a 40-year resident of Madison. He received the city’s Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award in 2008, and is a past president of the United Nations Association’s Dane County and Wisconsin chapter, and an emeritus member of the UNA’s national council.
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