Whenever we witness the type of devastation wrought by this week’s killer tornado, we naturally struggle with a host of emotions. Those of us in the neighborhood battle to control our anxieties as we gather the information we can about the storm’s strength, location and direction. We experience dismay when we hear the threat above us has touched down and become a real physical menace to our friends, neighbors and loved ones. When the “all clear” sounds, we are thankful that the nightmare is over. When we realize our loved ones are all safe and sound, we rejoice.
We are crushed by early reports that 24 grade-school children died when they were trapped in their schoolhouse. We experienced a wave of relief when we learned this number was exaggerated.
As the magnitude of the destruction emerges, we sympathize with those whose homes were destroyed and we grieve intensely with those who will forever mark this as the day they lost someone they love. In the days that follow, many of us will try to put this catastrophe into a larger perspective. Nature’s ferocious capacities are facts of life for everyone who lives on this planet.
Consider, for example, that in China’s great flood of 1931, somewhere between 800,000 and four million people died. In the 1921-22 droughts in the Soviet Union, more than five million people were said to have starved. More than 1,700 people died in the United States as a result of the Pestigo wildfire of 1871. In 2005, more than 75,000 were killed or injured when an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale struck Pakistan. In 1970, as many as 500,000 died in the Bhola hurricane, in what is now Bangladesh. The 1918 flu epidemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
As for tornadoes, the deadliest outbreak in United States history took place on March 18, 1925, when at least one F-5 storm left the longest path and spent the longest time on the ground traveling through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. In its wake, almost 500 people were dead.
As we come to grips with our losses here in Oklahoma and reflect on the ravages of the past, we realize that our misfortunes, grave as they are, might have been a lot worse with a minor turn of the circumstantial dial. This is a realization that seems to permeate Oklahomans from the souls of their steadfast feet to the tops of their wonderfully stubborn heads. No matter how hard these people get hit, they never stay down long. They are not prone to trivialize their troubles, but they don’t spend a lot of time bellyaching about them either.
My pride in my fellow Oklahomans swells almost beyond my power to contain when I see them dig through the remains of their destroyed homes to save what they can so they can get busy rebuilding. I am humbled when I see them standing on the ruins of their community and offer prayers of thanksgiving. I’m inspired when I see them roll up their sleeves and rally all their strength, determination and energy to rescue, support and console their neighbors.
I recall talking to an aid worker who came to Oklahoma City to offer support after the Murrah Federal Building bombing. “Know what I love about Oklahoma?” she asked. “When I went to California to help with the Northridge earthquake, people lined the streets to sell us bottles of water. When we got to Oklahoma, people turned out by the hundreds to give us water and food and anything else we needed — and then they pitched in to lend a hand.”
Yes, I’m proud of my fellow citizens — I’m proud of Oklahomans. But my pride doesn’t stop here. Each time Oklahoma suffers some catastrophe, we are overwhelmed by an outpouring of love, affection, support and understanding from our fellow Americans. In the aftermath of this storm, you don’t hear much chatter about red state/blue state differences. You don’t see people apportioning their efforts depending on whether those suffering are conservatives or liberals. You don’t see people bypassing the ruins of a Republican home in order to favor those who lost a Democratic home.
Wouldn’t it be grand if we could bring the same sense of unity to the solutions of all of our pressing national problems? If there is a silver lining to catastrophes such as Oklahoma’s May 20 tornado it’s this: In the wake of this type of devastation, we realize we are all Americans. We’re all neighbors. When the chips are down, we can put our differences aside, join hands and rebuild. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.