The best and worst of times

The best and worst of times

May 7th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The string of tornadoes that ravaged Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama on April 27 was part of one of the worst outbreaks of its type ever recorded by the National Weather Service. Area residents understandably will remember the twisters for the deaths they caused and the mind-boggling damage they caused. The events of the day should be recalled, as well, for the response it prompted in the wake of the especially vicious storms.

There were acts of courage and kindness from individuals, from the community and from institutions. Without them, a terribly difficult and dangerous situation almost certainly would have been far worse.

In some instances, individuals heeded warnings about a tornado's approach and led others to shelter. Some covered others with their own bodies to protect them from harm. The number of deaths and injuries, painfully high as it was, likely would have been far higher if not for such actions.

When the winds subsided, many individuals first assured themselves that loved ones were unharmed. Then, they rushed outside to make sure friends, acquaintances and even strangers had survived Nature's onslaught. Many individuals worked quickly and efficiently - sometimes at great personal risk - to help free those trapped and to help open blocked roads so emergency responders could reach hard-hit areas. If they could do nothing else, individuals offered comfort and prayer, commodities that surely helped ease the pain and the stress of a difficult time.

Some vignettes from the storms' aftermath will not be forgotten easily. The sight of family members searching through the rubble of a home to find and save small mementos is heart-wrenching. Images of damage on a scale so vast in begs the imagination won't fade fast. Neither will pictures of stunned strangers hugging each other in relief following the storm, or of the dignified gentleman emerging from his home carrying a coffee pot and cups to offer to linemen working outside his home.

Public safety, emergency and law enforcement officials responded quickly to reports of death, injury and widespread damage. Area utility companies worked quickly to repair the worst damage in their history. The job continues with the assistance of workers from more than a dozen states. At this writing only a handful of individuals and businesses remain without service. The community is in debt to those who labored to restore services that have become essential to everyday life.

Community response was equally impressive. Churches not damaged by the storms immediately opened their doors to all who needed shelter or assistance. Many houses of worship, in fact, became and remain de facto emergency centers, Many businesses willingly donated items and money to help in the relief effort. Indeed, community fund-raising efforts quickly raised well over $1 million to assist victims.

There were numerous accounts of individuals, groups and institutions providing assistance to others. A grassroots effort to provide prom dresses to girls in storm-ravaged areas quickly attracted national attention. One woman's desire to return ephemera and other items deposited hundreds of miles from home by tornadic winds to their owners attracted heavy Internet traffic. Calls for volunteers to assist in cleanup invariably prompted turnouts so heavy that officials had to turn some would-be workers away, or direct them to other sites in need of assistance. Given the 40 or more tornadoes that hit the area, it was no shortage of places for them to work.

There were, unfortunately, some acts of criminality and thoughtlessness following the storm. Several looters were arrested, Some roads were so packed with sightseers that clean-up crews could not do their job. Some law enforcement officials used the occasion to abuse their power. They should know that it is possible to protect and to serve the public in trying circumstances without crossing constitutional boundaries. To be fair, though, untoward incidents were mercifully few.

The tornadoes of April 27 were historic by any measure. What followed, though, is equally memorable. The outpouring of help, love and concern for those whose lives were irrevocably changed by tragedy is a reminder of the inherent goodness of mankind and of the indomitable spirit that knits Americans together in both the best and worst of times.