David Brooks: The Storm After the Storm

Roundup: Media's Take

Hurricanes come in two waves. First comes the rainstorm, and then comes what the historian John Barry calls the "human storm" - the recriminations, the political conflict and the battle over compensation. Floods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities. When you look back over the meteorological turbulence in this nation's history, it's striking how often political turbulence followed.

In 1889 in Pennsylvania, a great flood washed away much of Johnstown. The water's crushing destruction sounded to one person like a "lot of horses grinding oats." Witnesses watched hundreds of people trapped on a burning bridge, forced to choose between burning to death or throwing themselves into the churning waters to drown.

The flood was so abnormal that the country seemed to have trouble grasping what had happened. The national media were filled with wild exaggerations and fabrications: stories of rivers dammed with corpses, of children who died while playing ring-around-the-rosy and who were found with their hands still clasped and with smiles still on their faces.

Prejudices were let loose. Hungarians then were akin to today's illegal Mexican immigrants - hard-working people who took jobs no one else wanted. Newspapers carried accounts of gangs of Hungarian men cutting off dead women's fingers to steal their rings. "Drunken Hungarians, Dancing, Singing, Cursing and Fighting Amid the Ruins" a New York Herald headline blared.

Then, as David McCullough notes in "The Johnstown Flood," public fury turned on the Pittsburgh millionaires whose club's fishing pond had emptied on the town. The Chicago Herald depicted the millionaires as Roman aristocrats, seeking pleasure while the poor died like beasts in the Coliseum.

Even before the flood, public resentment was building against the newly rich industrialists. Protests were growing against the trusts, against industrialization and against the new concentrations of wealth. The Johnstown flood crystallized popular anger, for the fishing club was indeed partly to blame. Public reaction to the disaster helped set the stage for the progressive movement and the trust-busting that was to come....

We'd like to think that the stories of hurricanes and floods are always stories of people rallying together to give aid and comfort. And, indeed, each of America's great floods has prompted a popular response both generous and inspiring. But floods are also civic examinations. Amid all the stories that recur with every disaster - tales of sudden death and miraculous survival, the displacement and the disease - there is also the testing.

Civic arrangements work or they fail. Leaders are found worthy or wanting. ...

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    Ray Whitener - 9/3/2005

    Author Brooks contends that "Public reaction to the disaster (Johnstown Flood) helped set the stage for the progressive movement and the trust-busting that was to come...."

    Some 110 years later, America must contend with a natural disaster that struck a community inner city with signficant numbers of working poor, dependent upon public transportation and finding themselves, by no choice of their own standing in the light of world media.

    With priorities of a smaller and much threating world before us, yes it will be illuminating to see leadership emerging. Can the United States continues to stand against terrorism, care for the helpless Americans, and reach out to those nations offering a helping hand.

    Yes, courageous men and women must step forward. We must address the needs of wounded America and come to a new understanding of American frienship in this time of need. Partisanship must take a seat behind leadership.