The scenes of destruction wrought on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Harvey cannot do other than move even the stoniest heart. One aches at the sight of people who have lost everything, including loved ones. Yet amid these scenes of suffering and anguish there also shines a glimmer of hope. As I watched footage of ordinary people piloting their fishing boats down the streets of their flooded neighborhoods, plucking strangers from their upstairs bedrooms and rooftops and taking them to safety, I could not help but recall the events of September 1940.
Britain was in grave peril. Hitler’s armies were in the process of overrunning the Low Countries and France. After Belgium’s untimely surrender, the entire British Expeditionary Force and their allies—300,000 men and all of their vital war materiel—came under threat of imminent destruction. They were trapped. Hitler’s armies were the hammer and Dunkirk’s rocky coastline was the anvil: crush the British forces and England would be laid bare.
Winston Churchill’s island nation faced an existential threat. The poignancy of the challenge was matched only by the defiant British response. The ships of the British Navy were too large to get close enough to the beach where the flower of British manhood waited for help to appear on the horizon.The clock was running and the desperate rescue operation would have failed had not the British people plunged into the breach and retrieved the army using a ragtag flotilla of fishing boats, private yachts, tugboats, and just about anything else that would float. The timely, doughty intervention of the “Little Ships of Dunkirk” as they later came to be known, saved the British forces. Some were fitted out with naval crews but many of the pleasure craft were manned by their owners along with friends, family, and volunteers. It stands as one of history’s great triumphs of a free people in action.
It was hard not to see the parallels this week as Americans pulled together.
Disaster struck and a nation responded. It was not, thank God, a hostile army—it was the awesome, uncontrollable power of a hurricane. But the devastation is just the same. And so is the sacrifice, the heroism, and the love shown by Americans one for another. The hurricane descended on our country without regard to color or creed—black or white, red or blue—just Americans, as Lincoln said, “blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh.”
The scenes from Houston are horrific. Tens of thousands homeless, hundreds of thousands without water and power. It’s an environment that inspires fear, breeds disease, and, in some, stokes the criminal imagination.
There’s the price gouging and hoarding but there’s also the help not offered and the back turned. Lowest of all are the looters for whom no epithet or condemnation captures the depth of their depravity or expresses the full contempt with which they should be regarded. Such is the human condition.
But they are not the story of Houston. Though the criminals and opportunists get too much of the press coverage they remain the exception. No, the story emerging from Houston is one of charity and sacrifice freely given. It is a story that not only speaks to the better angels of our nature; it exemplifies them.
The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes memorably described life outside of civil society as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. A major city that lies devastated in the wake of a major storm is one in which the institutions that uphold our civilization are strained to the breaking point where they are functioning at all. It’s the closest thing to Hobbes’ state of nature we are likely to see in 21st century America. Yet what characterized the response of these Americans was not chaos but kindness—an overwhelming outpouring of support. Yes, government sprang into action as is appropriate, bringing order and supplies. But what has impressed me most has been the rapid, selfless response of citizens on the ground.
Our nation’s many excellent charities have been deluged with donations (more are still needed). But there has been so much more than that. Even more than sending money, people took direct responsibility upon themselves to help friends, family, and strangers. While thousands flee to shelters, thousands more are taken into the homes of their friends and relations. Some will be there for months.
I have a friend who is a nurse at Houston Methodist Hospital. They’ve been short staffed for days—caregivers homes get hit too—but she and her colleagues have stayed on duty providing care long past the point of exhaustion. They’re not alone. Throughout Houston and across the region ordinary people—our fellow countrymen—responded with acts of kindness and generosity that will never be broadcast or memorialized. It’s been said that character is what you do when nobody is looking. So I am not surprised to see this American character on display. Americans love their country and they love each other.
In 1783, George Washington wrote to his countrymen that it was his “earnest prayer” that they would “entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States.” Looking at the reports from Houston we see heartrending scenes of loss. But amid the ruins we also see neighbor helping neighbor without any prompt or requirement from the authorities—just Americans linked arm in arm in a common struggle. It’s in those acts—again, mostly unrecorded and unknown—that we can see Washington’s prayer being answered.
When the British army was trapped at Dunkirk, Churchill called on the British people to save their boys. They responded and their memory is rightly honored. But when Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston ordinary Americans sprang into action without even being asked.
We’re quick to lament the divisions in our country and the degradation of our culture. But what we saw this week was something entirely different and better. While we spend so much time talking about our differences and disagreements there is still a common bond that ties us together. The American spirit is still strong and that should give us hope that we can build a better future.