I'll never forget a group of people — some of them homeless veterans — who were staying at the Salvation Army shelter when an EF4 tornado hit Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011. They crawled from the wreckage of the badly damaged shelter and ran down the street to help pull people from other buildings that had been obliterated, digging victims from piles of bricks, cinder-blocks and collapsed roofs.
Whenever bad things happen, I tell my kids to look for the people doing good.
It’s advice I’ve borrowed from Fred Rogers of the television show "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," who once told a story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers,’ ” Rogers said. “ ‘You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
It’s a story I repeat to my three children often, especially as of late.
It’s something that, as a journalist, I have witnessed, people coming together in times of need. It’s something that can restore a person’s belief in humanity. It can bolster the belief that people are generally good — the belief that when a disaster happens, it can bring out the best in people.
I’ve seen religious and racial barriers disappear when a natural disaster occurs, when socioeconomic differences cease to exist. I’ve seen neighbors helping neighbors, strangers coming out of nowhere, wanting to help. Perhaps they have a chainsaw to offer, a hot meal or a case of bottled water.
It was something I saw 12 years ago after Hurricane Katrina. I spoke to evacuees who had fled New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and found refuge in hotels and Red Cross shelters. I interviewed families who lost everything, people who crowded around TVs to glimpse aerial views of their neighborhoods covered with water. Within only a few days, people were delivering meals, taking families shopping for new clothes, even helping people find apartments stocked with donated furniture.
The worst of times brings out the good.
I thought of those Katrina evacuees the morning after the tornado tore across Tuscaloosa, across my neighborhood, in 2011. Suddenly, I was the one who was waking up in a hotel, not knowing when I would be able to go home or what the future may bring. It was my turn to deal with insurance companies, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with contractors and cleanup crews. The American Red Cross drove down my street handing out meals, as helicopters roared overhead. Volunteers from across the country showed up to help clear debris. The volunteers were people we had never met, who worked tirelessly through the night, cutting our giant, fallen oaks into pieces, trying to clear the roads.
They were the good during the bad.
To the people of Texas, I know it’s hard to be hopeful when you don’t know what the future will bring. It’s hard to see the light when you’ve been thrown down a rabbit hole by Mother Nature, and you wonder if your city, your neighborhood and your street will ever be the same again. It’s difficult to know what the next step may be to recover, when the path before you seems muddied and confusing. But you will recover. Your cities will come back. Normalcy will return.
It won’t happen in a few days. It may not happen in weeks or even months. But life as you knew it will return. It won’t be easy, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just remember to look for the people doing good.
And for the others reading this, in Alabama and elsewhere, remember how people have helped us. It’s our time to give back.
— Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.