No Tongue Can Tell

1328-Ball-3.jpg

Imagine living in an island city filled with beautifully colorful buildings that look almost like doll houses. The streets are filled with smiling happy people who bask in the sunny days and enjoy the ocean breezes. Along the shore on a pier out in the ocean there is a huge ferris wheel that citizens reach on a train that transports them over the water. There is a port that brings goods and money into the area from all over the world. It provides jobs that make the citizens some of the wealthiest in the nation. This is surely a place that must be paradise, a dream come true for all who dwell here.

Now consider that news arrives of a coming storm. Reports differ as to its potential strength. The local meteorologist does not believe that it will be particularly harmful. The signs from the ocean appear to be mild. There is no reason to panic or leave. It’s simply time to batten down the hatches, get together indoors with neighbors and celebrate good fortune. You watch as the ocean asserts its power and the sky grows dark. The streets of your town begin to fill with water, but nobody is particularly worried. They’ve seen this kind of thing before. It will blow over and the sun will return. Maybe the wind will create the need for a few repairs, but nothing more.

By nightfall you become a bit more concerned and invite frightened friends to your more substantial house. Things should be just fine, but as the squalls come ashore something is very different about this hurricane. It is more frightening. Too many things are blowing past the windows. The water is inching rapidly toward the front door. You and those with you climb to the second floor to wait it out. The tension in the group becomes more palatable. Your heart begins to race and you have thoughts that you want to wish away.

Something slams into the side of the house. Suddenly there is an open hole the size of an entire room. The place is breaking apart and everyone becomes hysterical. You see water raging past filled with flotsam and jetsam and people who do not appear to be alive. The floor on which you are standing begins to crumble. You grab at a portion of your once fine home that has suddenly become the foundation of a makeshift raft. You carefully place your children on the flimsy lifeboat and search for your spouse who has suddenly disappeared under the water. You are in a panic, not knowing what to do. Should you dive under the darkness in an attempt to find her, or is it best to look after your children? You pray to God for strength and protection. You want this horrifying night to be done.

You float aimlessly for hours. As far as you can see  there is unspeakable destruction. Little do you know that it is far worse than you imagine. Perhaps it is best that you are ignorant of the true extent of the terror, because you might lose all hope if you know what has really happened. You calm your children and wait for the sun to rise. You want to cry, but know that now is not the time.

When the day dawns the winds have ceased and the waters have begun to recede. The vision before your eyes is unimaginable. You want to shield your children from the truth, but the death that surrounds you is so massive that there is no possible way to keep them from knowing what has happened. Your once majestic city by the sea is gone, never again to be one of the most important places in the country. A later accounting reveals that more than six thousand of your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens have died in the hurricane, a count that will not be equaled even a hundred years later.

The task before you and other survivors is daunting. Some have already decided to just leave, but you want to stay in this place. It has burrowed into your heart, and even with all of the pain that it has created you can’t bear to go somewhere else. You join the building process and silently hope that you will find your relatives and friends who are missing, but you never do.

Your city will become a small town, no longer destined to be as glorious as it once was. You help to build a seawall designed to keep the raging waters at bay. You work to raise the entire island, a modern marvel of engineering. You are proud of those who work to bring things back to a semblance of normalcy. You are a survivor of something so terrible that you will never be able to adequately speak of its horror. You don’t want to talk about what you lost. You try not to think about the orphanage that no longer exists, or the tiny souls from there who were eventually found buried under the sand with their caretakers next to them. Yours is a story for the ages that you will never want to repeat.

This is a true account of the great storm of 1900, a category four hurricane that moved right over Galveston Island in Texas. To this day there has never been another natural disaster in the United States that claimed so many lives. In the course of only a few hours the once thriving city was decimated, and would ultimately be reduced to a sleepy place that mostly attracts tourists and brave souls who find themselves in love with the tropical atmosphere. Many of the homes of 1900 still stand, reminders of a time when some of the most powerful and wealthy individuals in America lived and worked in the once bustling city. On a sunny day it is easy to imagine how wonderful life must have been before the true danger of being there was revealed.

The ghosts of a magnificent time and place lurk along with those who died so tragically in a single night. There is something indeed special about Galveston that can’t be described until someone has spent time there in the changing seasons. It is easy to fall in love with this town, but those who choose to make this island home must understand that danger is always possible.

After 1900, the improbable happened. A swampy little place called Houston became the titan that Galveston had been. The people there dredged a channel from Galveston Bay inland to create one of the busiest ports in the world. Houston would grow to become the fourth largest city in the United States, and until just this year would not experience anything resembling the tragedy that befell Galveston in 1900. Hurricane Harvey flooded the streets and homes of Houston, but thankfully did not even come close to killing the number of people who died long ago in the place just fifty miles south. Still those of us who have lived in Houston and visited Galveston understand better than ever the need to respect the storms that form in the Atlantic from June to November each year.

Now that hurricane season is over we have some time to relax before considering what we must do to make this area less likely to crumble under the brunt of a killer storm. The potential for disaster will roll around again just as it does each year. It’s important that we try to imagine the possibilities so that we will plan wisely and take precautions when danger becomes imminent. We more than most know what it is like when Mother Nature grows surly, and we understand the we can never be complacent about her power to change our world in an instant. Ours are the kind of stories that no tongue can tell.

Advertisements

A Time For Understanding

puerto-rico-9-28-17-4I’m enrolled in a continuing education class at Rice University. The professor has spoken of the atmosphere in the United States just prior to Pearl Harbor. Much of the rest of the world was already engaged in conflict but most people in our country were intent on keeping peace and isolating ourselves from the disagreements. My teacher noted that the concerns about either Germany or Japan were most notable in parts of the country that were closest to possible invasions from those respective countries. The east coast was particularly observant of happenings in Europe, while the west coast was watching the Pacific nations. The big middle of the United States was almost blissfully unaware of the looming war in which our country would one day find itself. Such is the way in which we view events. Those of us who have more at stake in particular situations are more likely to have more interest and understanding of them.

I live in a part of the United States that is subject to hurricanes. Each year when the season for those storms arrives I am alert to every change in the ocean waters of the Caribbean, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf. I have personally experienced the frightening and devastating effects of hurricanes on multiple occasions. Thus it is that I have a visceral understanding of what it is like to endure both the passage of a hurricane and its after effects. I have had my roof blown away, my fence flattened, my roads made impassible by rising waters, and the flow of power inside my home interrupted by downed lines. I know what it is like to wonder and worry how long it will take to repair the damage and return to normalcy. I have stood in long lines to get food from nearly empty shelves. I have seen my city broken and confused. Such events are difficult even in the best of circumstances when relief pours in quickly and repairs are tackled from volunteers from all parts of the world. When those things do not happen in a timely fashion people get sick. Some of them die. Frustrations and fears begin to form inside even the most calm among us. It is a scenario that I have seen firsthand. I am close enough to such situations to have an idea of how people feel about them.

My father-in-law was born and raised in Puerto Rico and I have learned a bit about that island from him. I know that the people there are citizens of the United States, something that many Americans don’t seem to realize. They serve in the military just as my father-in-law did in Korea. They are free to come and go from their island to the mainland of the United States. Puerto Rico is a territory rather than a state and as such the citizens do not have representation in Congress, but their rights are otherwise much like ours.

The people of Puerto Rico are industrious and generous. I have found them to be interesting and delightful. In my one visit to the island I marveled at the beauty of their land and the depth of their history. I also know that they are even more conscious of the possibility of hurricanes than I am. They build their homes out of cinderblock in anticipation of the arrival of the strong winds of those storms that seem to be almost magnetically attracted to their homeland that sits so precariously in the Caribbean. As with my city every new hurricane season brings the possibility that a storm will hit, and this year was no exception. Sadly the brunt of destruction that the people of Puerto Rico have had to bear has been, as in my city of Houston, more horrific than any in more than eighty years.

In September not one but two hurricanes passed over the island with unimaginable force. The second storm took aim for the center of the territory and left indescribable damage in its wake. Now the people of that island are suffering mightily with little hope for a speedy conclusion to the hurt and pain that has been inflicted on them. The category four winds destroyed buildings and took out power across the entire landscape. Without electricity, with roads damaged and impassable, and with shortages of virtually every major need from food to medicine, the citizens are beginning to panic. I for one intimately feel and appreciate their sense of anxiety because I have only lately lived through the worst flood in the history of our country. The uncertainties of such dilemmas are fraught with fears.

Some would have us believe that the Puerto Rican people are responsible for their own misfortune because they have accumulated debts and neglected the country’s infrastructure. I would argue that such discussions are meaningless, having little to do with what has happened. Our own country is hopelessly in debt and we know for a fact that our roads, bridges and power plants are outdated and in need of upgrades. Nonetheless, natural disasters over which we have no power will visit our towns and cities. When they do it is a waste of time to point fingers and attempt to determine guilt. Our only response should be to render aide as quickly as possible. Such emergencies are not political contests. Nor should they provide opportunities for airing personal grudges. The person who needs dialysis and cannot get it cares little for excuses. The individual who doesn’t know how to store medications that require refrigeration is not interested in debates. Those without water or food only want to know that their hunger and thirst will soon be satisfied. They really don’t care if their aide comes from Republicans or Democrats, governors or presidents. They only pray that someone will recognize their plight and take pity.

We are a generous nation. In fact we are a generous world. I have watched volunteers from all parts of the globe coming to my city to help people that they have never known and whom they will probably never see again. Their motives are kind and generous. They do not expect praise for their efforts. They just want to make life a bit better for those who have undergone terrible loss. So it should be in Puerto Rico.

I understand that it is a bit more difficult to transport workers and supplies to an island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, but that challenge should not become an excuse for the chaos that continues to hamper the relief efforts that the Puerto Ricans so desperately need. There should be less talk and more action. That is what saved the day here in Houston, and it is what will get the people of Puerto Rico on a road to recovery more quickly. We also need sympathy and understanding from everyone. Memes and soundbites critiquing those who have been victimized by nature’s fury are the very last activities that should be engaging us. Prayers, supplies and action are the only things that will suffice. We need leaders who will manage the process with loving concern.

Long ago when my paternal grandfather was born his last name was Mack. Those who new me as a school girl will remember that my maiden name was Little. That is because my grandfather was orphaned as a young boy and had to choose a guardian to watch over him. He selected an uncle who was a graduate of West Point. That man was named Little. After a horrible hurricane devastated Puerto Rico near the beginning of the twentieth century he was given the job of managing the relief efforts. History says that his attempts were remarkably effective. My grandfather would have asserted that it was because the man who provided him with his care and his name was a noble and kind man of the highest character. He was successful in his mission because he approached it with kindness and leadership. That is the type of person that we need to put in charge right now, someone who will demonstrate genuine feelings for the people and who will not be afraid to do whatever it takes to get things done.

I pray for Puerto Rico and my heart hurts for its people. I hope that our leaders remember that the people there are just as entitled to our help as any other United States citizens are. We all need to push for the aide and the leadership that they need.